After a lengthy review of scientific knowledge and public sentiment, a task force convened by the city has concluded fluoride should no longer be added to public water systems in Fairbanks.
The Fairbanks City Council should follow that advice. The council could vote as early as tonight on an ordinance from Mayor Jerry Cleworth to prohibit the addition of fluoride.
The task force’s report isn’t a clarion call for fluoride’s removal. It is a cautious summary of a subject in which the science continues to reflect uncertainty. However, the group felt that, on balance, the arguments for removal were stronger. The report is posted on the city’s website.
For decades, dentists and public health specialists have argued strenuously for the addition of fluoride to municipal water systems, citing studies that show a benefit to dental health. Other studies, though, have undercut those claims. The task force, tossed into this developing debate, had some very interesting conclusions.
They found that community water fluoridation caused a large reduction in dental caries — cavities — when it was first done, many decades ago. However, “in recent decades, the degree of caries reduction attributed to community water fluoridation has decreased as other sources of fluoride have come into common use and as effective dental health measures have become more prevalent,” the group found. “The relative importance of water fluoridation is currently much smaller, more variable among populations, and perhaps unknowable.”
Fluoride is present naturally at 3 [sic: 0.3] parts per million in the water from Golden Heart Utilities, the private company that supplies much of Fairbanks. The task force said the effect of returning Fairbanks water to this natural level, “while most likely small, is unknown and unpredictable.”
The group acknowledged that there was some dental health risk in dropping the additive — enough to warrant public education about the change. “Those who depend on 0.7 ppm fluoride in tap water for their dental health need to be informed of the possible adverse consequences to their dental health caused by reducing the fluoride content of Fairbanks tap water from 0.7 ppm to 0.3 ppm,” the task force said in its summary.
Nevertheless, the task force did find one clear dental health risk from adding fluoride. It said “higher concentrations of fluoride put non-nursing infants at risk” of later developing fluorosis — teeth that are discolored or even pitted so badly that, ironically, they become susceptible to decay. Removing the additive fluoride “will reduce, but not eliminate, the risk of significant incidence and severity of fluorosis, especially fluorosis associated with the use of GHU water to prepare infant formula,” the task force said.
The risk to infants, in fact, was the primary reason for the group’s removal recommendation.
Fluoride is sometimes blamed for scarier health problems than fluorosis — cancer, endocrine system malfunction, nervous system interference and skeletal deformities among them. The task force said the scientific literature was difficult to interpret because so many factors affect the dosages people receive from water, food and toothpaste. However, there is some limited data linking fluoride to osteosarcoma — bone cancer. Also, research into adverse effects of fluoride on endocrine glands and the nervous system has show “mixed results.”
Given the uncertainty of fluoride’s benefits today, the risk of fluorosis and the still uncertain but possible other health risks, the council would be well justified in turning off the fluoride spigot.