Updated: Apr 29, 2010 12:09 AM

FORT RICHARDSON, Alaska — Water at Fort Richardson and Elmendorf Air Force Base is unsafe to drink because of elevated levels of fluoride, according to the Air Force 3rd Wing Public Affairs Office.

Officials have directed residents and visitors at both installations not to drink the water or use it for food preparation until further notice.

The military is unsure when the water will be safe to drink again, but are working on flushing the system.

The Fort Richardson water treatment facility detected the high levels of fluoride at about 4 a.m. Wednesday. The levels were tested at nearly three times the normal amount.

Officials at a press conference Wednesday afternoon said that equipment used to monitor and test the water failed as an operator was adding the fluoride, which helps reduce tooth decay.

A light came on telling the operator to add more fluoride, but he had a gut feeling he added too much.

“It malfunctioned, over-injected and we are in the situation we are today,” said utilities site manager Bob Zacharski.

The water is safe to use for cleaning purposes, but should not be ingested, military officials said. Bottled water will be provided at distribution centers at the hospital, schools and dining facilities.

“This is one of those substances which cannot be boiled out of the water, which is why it’s so important to not drink the water. This is very different from other contaminations. The safest thing to do is not drink the water,” said hospital commander Dr. Paul Friedrichs.

A safe fluoride level is 4.0 milligrams per liter; the water at the post was just under 11.0 milligrams — nearly three times what it should be.

Doctors don’t expect any negative effects from the elevated levels and say that nobody has reported illness at the hospital or clinic on base.

“In rare cases, according to poison control or the Environmental Protection Agency, you can see an upset stomach or people may become allergic to fluoride and can develop a rash or some sort of other skin problem and then very, very rarely they can develop some changes in the way that they think or can even have some neurological symptoms from it,” Friedrichs said, adding that all those symptoms resulted from long-term exposure.

He says it’s more of a precaution than a hazard at this point and that the water can still be used for showering and hand washing.

“Typically fluoride is very safe; we put it in the water to protect teeth and we anticipate we are not going to see any health problems from this,” Friedrichs said.

After crews flush the contaminated water from the pipes, Zacharski says they’ll begin an investigation.

“When any problem arises you always look back and see what the process is and there might be a change in that in the future,” he said.

There’s no clear time frame for how long it will take to flush the system. Crews say it’s just a matter of getting all the bad water through the pipes.