FORT WORTH — The city of Fort Worth has temporarily stopped adding fluoride to public drinking water supplies, because of a nationwide shortage of the tooth decay-fighting compound.

The city, which supplies drinking water to nearly 1 million people in Tarrant County, ran out of fluoride last month after its contracted supplier failed to deliver a promised shipment, said Mary Gugliuzza, public education coordinator for the Fort Worth Water Department.

She said the city is completing an emergency purchase order for at least a three-month supply of fluoride, and it should arrive by Nov. 30. “We’re going through the steps to try and make that happen as quickly as we can,” she said.

Fort Worth is the only water supplier in the county to run out of fluoride. But more than a dozen other cities are affected because the city supplies water to Keller, Southlake, Burleson, Trophy Club, Crowley, Everman, Haltom City, Hurst, North Richland Hills, Richland Hills, Saginaw and White Settlement.

Arlington, which supplies drinking water to about 365,000 people, has not experienced a shortage, said Julie Hunt, the city’s water utilities director. Likewise, the Trinity River Authority, which supplies water to about 140,000 people in Bedford, Euless, Colleyville, Grapevine and parts of North Richland Hills, has been receiving fluoride shipments on time, said Debbie Bronson, an authority spokeswoman.

Though fluoride is considered essential to fighting bacteria that cause cavities, a short interruption “is not going to have a major impact” on public health, said Dan Reimer, director of Fort Worth’s Public Health Department. The full benefit of fluoride comes from drinking fluoridated water for many years, said Dr. Elvin Adams, medical director of Tarrant County public health. “Missing a month or two won’t have a large impact on anyone’s teeth,” he said.

Terri Patrick, a registered dental hygienist and past president of the Dallas Dental Hygienists’ Society, said that if people are concerned, they should buy toothpaste with fluoride in it.

Fluoride shortage
The problem

A fluoride shortage that has hit the U.S. and Canada has forced Fort Worth to stop adding the compound to the water supply. The city, which began adding fluoride to water in the early 1960s, has found a short-term supplier and should resume adding fluoride by the end of the month.

Why it’s important

Fluoride is strongly endorsed by federal health officials and dentists as an effective, inexpensive way to prevent tooth decay. Fluoridated drinking water is credited with reducing tooth decay by as much as 60 percent since World War II, according to the American Dental Association. Today, nearly 2 out of 3 Americans drink fluoridated water.

The causes

A number of factors caused the shortage, experts say. One is the widespread damage caused by Hurricane Katrina, which disrupted production of the phosphate fertilizers that are the source of most of the fluoride used in drinking water. In addition, some phosphate mining operations have closed, while demand for fluoride is rising, particularly in California, said Greg Kail, senior public affairs manager at the American Water Works Association.

Water bills

Because supplies are tight, the city expects to pay as much as three times the normal price to obtain fluoride, said Mary Gugliuzza, public education coordinator for the Fort Worth Water Department. She said this would not have an immediate impact on monthly water bills because user rates have already been set. However, she said rates will be evaluated at the end of the year. And the fluoride shortage is projected to continue through next year, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, meaning the cost to supply water will increase.

What you can do

Health experts said the lack of fluoride will have no adverse health effect in the short term. But if you are concerned, there are some simple steps you can take.

Buy fluoride toothpaste: Most major brands of toothpaste include a small amount of fluoride.

Get a fluoride varnish: This involves a high dose of fluoride from your dentist. The application is good for six months to a year.

Buy fluoride drops: Usually available by prescription only, in areas without water fluoridation, it’s mixed in baby formula and drinks.

Chew gum: Chewing sugar-free gum increases saliva, which can wash food and other decaying material from the mouth.

For more information

City officials advise people to check for updates on the Water Department’s Web site:

Fluoride: A controversial history

Adding fluoride to drinking water has been a source of controversy ever since the practice became widespread in 1946.

Some have long questioned whether ingesting fluoride is safe. And some critics have labeled efforts to fluoridate water as Communist — an idea lampooned in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr. Strangelove in which a deranged Air Force commander triggers a nuclear war because he believes fluoridation is a communist plot to “impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.” But the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks water fluoridation among the 10 greatest public health achievements of the 20th century.

The controversy, however, won’t go away.

A Harvard University study in May 2006 suggested that boys ages 6-8 who are exposed to fluoridated water appear to have a greater chance of developing bone cancer. Also last year, the National Research Council recommended that the federal government lower the acceptable limit for fluoride levels in drinking water. Partly as a result, the Fluoride Action Network in August released a statement signed by more than 600 professionals — including more than 100 dentists — calling for an end to water fluoridation. The coalition, composed of health professionals and scientists, said that fluoride in toothpaste has proven effective in preventing tooth decay but argued that it “makes no sense to drink it and expose the rest of the body to the long-term risks of fluoride ingestion.”

Sources: American Dental Association; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Fluoride Action Network

By the numbers

$78 billion: The amount of money spent in the U.S. each year on dental services.

51 million: School hours lost each year due to dental-related illnesses.

$38: Estimated savings on dental treatment for every $1 invested in water fluoridation.

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; American Dental Association