Morganton, NC — City residents probably won’t notice the change, but their water soon will contain 30 percent less fluoride.
Jason Green, superintendent of the Morganton water plant, says the city will drop the chemical’s level from 1 milligram of fluoride per liter of water to 0.7 milligrams, because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a report raising concerns about the water additive.
The state currently recommends fluoride levels of 0.9 to 1.2 milligrams, Green said, but the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services is reevaluating that standard. State officials told water plants they will not penalize those who drop as low as 0.7 milligrams, which is the new EPA recommendation.
“We have a green light to do it,” Green said. “I have no doubt that HHS and EPA (are) going to come back and say 0.7 is more than adequate.”
For decades, the city has added fluoride to local water because of its health benefits. Green said voters elected to do so in local referendums, but state law regulates the quantity of fluoride.
Morganton residents have little to fear from too much fluoride finding its way in the water,Green said. He listed a number of fail-safes that keep the appropriate level of chemical in the water, including daily tests of samples taken by hand and constant fluoridation monitoring on one water line.
Green said the Morganton’s water plant uses a small day tank to add fluoride to drinking water, but keeps the main supply elsewhere.
Scales are used each day to measure the quantity of fluoride used.
The town of Valdese has not yet decided what to do about fluoride levels in its water.
The water plant normally runs fluoride at a level of 1.0 milligram per liter, including 0.2 milligrams that naturally occurs in the water.
No fluoride is currently being added, however. David Cook, the water resources manager, said the fluoride system is being replaced, so the town will not add fluoride for a few months.
The replacement is taking awhile because construction crews can’t lay a new concrete pad until the weather warms up.
Valdese’s fluoridation process otherwise is similar to Morganton’s system, Cook said, with the same safeguards in place to prevent over-fluoridating the water.
Adding fluoride to the water is expensive, according to Water Plant Superintendent Jerry Conley. He said it costs thousands of dollars each year for the fluoride solution used to treat the water. The twice-a-day tests can be expensive. On-site storage tanks have to be replaced every five to 10 years because fluoride is corrosive in high concentrations. It also takes extra man-hours to oversee and monitor fluoridation.
There is little chance the town will do away with adding fluoride any time soon, however.
Conley said citizens passed the referendum to add fluoride to the water, so water-plant workers have the responsibility to add the chemical to drinking water.
Fluoridation of water was controversial in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s. Some people believe it would lead to a socialist state and others feared fluoridation would lead to massive health issues.
Naysayers were mocked at the time, with several movies using opposition to fluoride as a sign of insanity, including “Dr. Strangelove.”
Opponents to fluoridation were partly vindicated in January when an EPA study linked high levels of fluoride in drinking water to dental and skeletal fluorosis, a condition that can cause discoloration and pitting in teeth and brittleness in bones.
The report said fluoride levels of 4 milligrams or higher — four times what water contains in Morganton and Valdese — can be dangerous.
EPA officials also raised concerns about the prevalence of fluoride in domestic products. When fluoride was introduced to water systems, it was the only major source of fluoride. Children today regularly get fluoride treatments at the dentist.
Also, use of the pesticide sulfuryl fluoride leaves a fluoride residue on many American-grown food products.
Environmental officials are now calling for sulfuryl fluoride to be phased out and are reevaluating fluoride levels in water.
Other cities respond
Some cities close to Burke County are dropping fluoride levels, but others plan to sit tight.
Marion has no plans to tweak its fluoride levels in light of the new EPA report. Marion City Manager Bob Boyette told The McDowell News the city’s water has 1 milligram of fluoride per liter of water, which is well below limits set by both the federal and state governments.
“To date, we have received no guidance from the state, which regulates our drinking water,” Boyette said. “That is supposedly coming in the next couple of weeks.”
Boyette said he spoke with Ray McCall of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
“He urged us to wait until we get that guidance,” Boyette said. “… It will be an easy change to make.”
Farther west, Asheville decided to reduce its fluoride levels by 30 percent to 0.7 milligrams per liter.
The McDowell News contributed to this report.