Huntersville Town Board member Charles Guignard has revived a decades-old debate about the safety of fluoridated water, saying the practice could pose a threat to users’ short- and long-term health.
Town officials are researching the issue, but public health officials say there’s no cause for concern.
Guignard said he’s long held the belief that fluoride is not a harmless additive that helps prevent tooth decay and promote dental health, as officials have said since the mid-1940s. Guignard said plenty of evidence and study suggests fluoride is linked to neurological diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, among other ailments.
He noted reports such as “The Great Culling,” speak to the larger issue of the general public not fully knowing what fluoride and its effects are.
After losing both his parents to dementia and Alzheimer’s, Guignard said, he worries about the costs associated with treating these diseases, especially as an elected official who’s decisions affect the public.
Huntersville Town Manager Greg Ferguson said town staff will research what other municipalities have done when concerns about fluoridated drinking water have been raised. Those findings will be brought back to the board, likely in July or August, he said. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utility Department supplies the drinking water that Huntersville residents, and others in Lake Norman, use.
Dr. Stephen Keener, medical director for Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Public Health Department, said the argument over fluoride has been going on for decades. “(Mecklenburg County) is proud to have fluoridated water for over 60 years,” he said.
“This debate between the anti-fluoridation and pro-fluoridation sides, it’s basically a standoff,” he said. “One side doesn’t believe the other, and there’s no agreement on it.”
“There are a lot of references to journal articles and magazine articles … that fluoride is a harmful substance and causes disease,” Keener said. “Those are studies that have not been scientifically validated. The studies we use to support the safety of fluoride in the water … are scientifically validated.
“If we believed there was harm to the health of citizens in Mecklenburg County resulting from fluoride in the water, we would not have it in there.”
Keener said Mecklenburg County follows the fluoride level recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. “They’re the federal authority. Those guidelines are adopted by our state division of public health and our local health department.”
Ferguson said he doesn’t hear from many citizens concerned about fluoridated water, but he said they may communicate directly with CMUD.
“The original intent (of adding fluoride to water) was to do it because not every kid had access to good dental care,” he said. “There’s some question about whether (the amount of fluoride in drinking water) could be more, could be less, or none,” Ferguson said, adding that Mecklenburg County’s fluoridation levels have been lowered in recent years to align with federal recommendations.
“It’s a valid conversation to have.”
Karen Whichard, a spokesperson with CMUD, said they get routine inquiries about fluoridation, among other topics. In February, the utilities provider sent a mass email to Charlotte City Council members with information and resources about fluoridated water so they could respond to any citizen concerns.
Eighty-eight percent of North Carolinians who use community water sources are drinking fluoridated water, according to CMUD. Fluoride is a naturally-occurring mineral in many water sources, and community water fluoridation is backed not only by the CDC, but also the American Dental Association and the American Public Health Association, according to CMUD.
Keener said the utility lowered the level of fluoride in local tap water in 2011 from 1 milligram per liter, or 1 part per million, to 0.7 milligrams per liter to follow ongoing national research about fluoride and its benefits.
Whichard said the highest level of fluoridation allowed nationally by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is 4.0. Guignard, who buys non-fluoridated water to drink and cook with, said he asked CMUD for more than a year to lower the levels.
Guignard said a recent “People’s Pharmacy” article that ran in the June 4 edition of the Observer cites three recent studies that suggest a link between aluminum exposure and neurotoxicity, dementia and Alzheimer’s.
“If I’m even a quarter right, why gamble,” Guignard asked. “I believe the American public is beginning to know it’s not healthy and that’s why we’re buying bottled water in mass quantity.”
Joe Graedon – who, with his wife, Terry, writes the column “People’s Pharmacy,” which is published in the Observer and other newspapers – said the article in question and the studies cited deal with specifically with aluminum exposure, not the effects of fluoridated water.
“They’re two very different elements,” he said.
Graedon said he’s admittedly not an expert in fluoride, but has been aware of the controversy that has surrounded it for decades.
While there’s strong data from human and animal research suggesting aluminum is a neurotoxin, Graedon said, “I can’t say the same for fluoride.”
Graedon said his only question about fluoride is how much is too much. He noted when fluoride was first added to water, it wasn’t readily found in toothpastes. “That seemingly has been beneficial, there’s data to support it,” he said of fluoridated water. “(But) today, you’d have to try pretty hard to find toothpaste without,” he said.
“Why do we need extra fluoride in water if we’re already being exposed in our (dental) products? I don’t have the answer to that.”
Graedon said studies often compare the rate of cavities in the United States to countries with non-fluoridated water. But he cautioned other factors besides the water can play into that data. “It’s like (the number) of heart attacks coming down over the past 30 years. Some say it’s aspirin, some say exercise, some say (blood pressure medications.) It’s which is your favorite (reason),” he said.
“If it’s true cavities have been coming down in fluoridated countries and nonfluoridated countries, and they’re roughly comparable, that does pose a question to the public health folks,” he said.
“Clearly, a lot of folks make this a personal issue, ‘Why do we have to be exposed to this initiative if we chose not to?’ If you chose not to, you have to have either a well-water system or buy bottled water,” he said. “I understand their question.”
Guignard said if he had unlimited time and resources, he’d make getting fluoride out of drinking water a top priority. “If I had $100,000 to have a guy with a Ph.D. in chemical engineering to show how unsafe it is … I just don’t have the money,” he said.
Even with a unanimous resolution from the Huntersville Town Board to remove fluoride from the water, Guignard said, it would likely be ignored in Charlotte and by the partnership between county health and utilities.
“In reality, we can’t do anything. It’d be like me trying to stop I-77 toll lanes.”