CLARKSBURG — The science supporting fluoridation of water as a safe, effective means of fighting tooth decay is clear, the state’s chief public health officer says.
Dr. Rahul Gupta, commissioner of the state Bureau for Public Health, said fluoridated water is the standard of care for protecting the dental health of over 200 million Americans.
“Fluoride has been examined from a scientific standpoint for a long time,” Gupta said. “Drinking fluoridated water keeps teeth strong and reduces tooth decay by approximately 25 percent in children and adults.
“By preventing tooth decay, community water fluoridation has been shown to save money, both for families and the health care system,” he added.
Gupta’s comments came in the wake of the Clarksburg Water Board’s decision to stop buying fluoride. Unless the water board reverses its decision, the public utility will cease fluoridating water once the current supply runs out.
Local and state governments decide whether to fluoridate the water systems under their jurisdictions, while the federal government recommends how much they should add if they choose to do so.
The current fluoride concentration level recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is 0.7 milligrams per liter of water.
The previous range was 0.7 milligrams to 1.2 milligrams. The change was made because of increases in fluorosis — a cosmetic condition in which teeth develop white spots or stains.
Dick Welch, the water board’s general manager, said the utility has been fluoridating water based on the low end for a while.
The West Fork River contains some fluoride, so only enough is added to bring the level to 0.7 milligrams, Welch said.
“We just supplement what’s naturally produced to come up to the recommended dosage,” Welch said.
Board members Paul Howe and Charlie Thayer voted to stop adding fluoride to the water over concerns the chemical could harm human health.
Gupta said there are many “myths” linking fluoride to numerous illnesses.
The Bureau for Public Health bases its recommendations on peer-reviewed data, Gupta said.
“It’s difficult to comment on things based on feelings,” he said.
For instance, a 155-pound man would have to ingest 5 to 10 grams of sodium fluoride to suffer acute fluoride toxicity and die, Gupta said.
That would be the equivalent of drinking 10,000 to 20,000 8-ounce glasses of water at once, Gupta said.
The water itself would kill you first, he said.
Walter Ivey is director of the Office of Environmental Health Services for the Bureau for Public Health.
Ivey said too much of anything — be it fluoride or milk — can harm you.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has determined that fluoridation at a concentration of 0.7 milligrams is not harmful to human health, Ivey said.
But Howe said he is concerned about the cumulative effect of those small doses of fluoride in drinking water.
“There are no long-term studies on the health effects to your body,” Howe said.
Some people might be predisposed to health issues caused by drinking fluoridated water, Howe said.
“My main concern is consent,” he said. “If people don’t want it in their water, there are other ways they can ingest it that’s healthy for them.”
There is a “halo effect” in which people get fluoride from other sources, Zane Satterfield said.
Satterfield is an engineering scientist with the National Environmental Service Center, a nonprofit organization whose primary focus is drinking water.
“Most of everything we eat is processed with fluoridated water, so we possibly get enough fluoride from everything else,” he said.
Some of the other chemicals used to treat water are more dangerous than fluoride, Satterfield and Ivey said.
Chlorine gas was used in World War I to kill enemy combatants, Satterfield said.
Now, chlorine in lower doses is used in water to kill harmful bacteria such as E. coli, Satterfield said.
“It’s all in the dosage amount that’s used,” he said.
“Chlorine is one of the chemicals that has done more than any other chemical to save lives because it kills the bacteria that can impact human health,” Ivey said.
Howe said he has no problem with the other chemicals in water because they make the water potable.
“The others are used to make the water delivered to our houses clean and safe,” Howe said.
Furthermore, it’s inexpensive for homeowners to buy a carbon filter to remove the other chemicals, while filters to remove fluoride are rather costly, Howe added.
For Gupta, it all comes back to the science, and the science shows that low doses of fluoride in the water are good for the teeth and not bad for the body.
That’s why the CDC, U.S. Public Health Service, World Health Organization, American Dental Association, American Academy of Pediatrics and nearly all other public health organizations support water fluoridation, Gupta said.
That’s why 75 percent of the U.S. population and 90 percent of the state population drink fluoridated water, Gupta said.
“This is something that’s a national norm based in science, and the science is clear,” he said.