Published in the Feb 17-23, 2011, edition of the Queens Tribune.
Two weeks ago in the Queens Tribune, a City Council colleague of mine wrote a piece entitled, “Fluoride – If in Doubt, Keep It Out.” My colleague believes that the New York City drinking water supply should no longer be fluoridated, and this Council Member has introduced a bill in the City Council to discontinue fluoridation.
And, in the course of trying to make the case and advance this bill, my colleague has made all kinds of absolutely preposterous statements – taken right out of the anti-fluoride zealots’ talking points – about “the government putting toxic chemicals in our water.” Referred to fluoride as a “poison” and stated that fluoridation is the government “force-medicating” the public, and “requiring every man, woman and child in America to ingest it (fluoride) borders on criminal behavior.” I could go on and on, but Ill spare you. You get the idea. However, I am compelled to set the record straight and give people the correct and up-to-date information on fluoride.
Fortunately for the consumers of New York City’s excellent quality drinking water, none of my colleague’s statements are valid. As a trained environmental scientist and Chairman of the City Council Committee on Environmental Protection, which has legislative oversight over the city’s drinking water reservoirs and drinking water distribution system, I can attest to you that our city has drinking water quality that is the envy of the entire country. We have that distinction because of the dedicated professionals from the city’s Department of Environmental Protection who protect, test, and deliver our water, and because of the world-class physicians from the city’s Department of Health who set public health policy for the entire city, including the city’s policy to fluoridate drinking water, a policy instituted by the city in 1965 and maintained to this day.
The overwhelming success of the city’s water fluoridation policy in preventing tooth decay is consistent with its success throughout the country. As of the most recent national statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from 2008, 195.5 million people in the country on a public water system received optimally fluoridated water, up from 184 million people in 2006. Water fluoridation has been so successful that the CDC has recognized it as one of the 10 great pubic health achievements of the 20th Century, along with other achievements such as decline in deaths from coronary heart disease and stroke, advances in motor-vehicle safety, recognition of tobacco as a health hazard, and control of infectious diseases. Last year, the CDC’s Division of Oral Health formally honored this country’s 65-year history of community water fluoridation for its outstanding contribution to public health.
The federal government has continued to research fluoride’s effectiveness and safety, with major national studies of fluoridation conducted by the National Research Council (NRC) in 1993 and 2006. The 2006 NRC study prompted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to study community water systems that contain fluoride naturally, (fluoride occurs naturally in most water systems) but at levels much higher than that recommended by the federal government. (This does not apply to New York City’s water – our water supply does not contain extraordinarily high amounts of natural fluoride). The EPA/HHS study also reviewed the current level of fluoride that the federal government recommends be added by local water providers, which is currently set as a range between .7 milligrams of fluoride per liter (ml/liter) of water up to 1.2 ml/liter. New York City, like most public water systems, fluoridates the water supply to a level in the middle of the recommended range – 1.0 ml/liter. The EPA/HHC study has resulted in a proposal to replace the current recommended range of .7 to 1.2 ml/liter with an optimal “target” fluoride level of .7 ml/liter, the low end of the current recommended range.
The study also specifies that water suppliers should not deviate from the .7 ml/liter “target” fluoride amount by more than .1 ml/liter below the .7 target (i.e., water suppliers should not go below .6 ml/liter of fluoride or risk losing proven tooth decay prevention benefits), and also specifies that water suppliers should not deviate more more than .5 ml/liter above the .7 target (i.e., water suppliers not go above 1.2 ml/liter in order to minimize the possibility of a non-harmful, strictly cosmetic white staining on teeth, a phenomenon known as dental fluorosis). This proposed change is not yet final, and the EPA and HHS are accepting public comments from medical professionals and the public on this change. And, although this study and new proposed rule may or may not lead to a miniscule change in the amount of fluoride added to our city’s drinking water, this comprehensive study represents the latest validation of fluoride’s effectiveness and safety using the latest science available and the federal government’s commitment to making one of the our country’s greatest public health successes even better.
At the announcement of this study and the proposed rule change last month on Jan. 7, 2011, HHS Assistant Secretary for Health Howard Koh, MD, MPH summed up what is almost assuredly the sentiment of the medical professions that you trust to care for you and your family: “Today’s announcement is part of our ongoing support of appropriate fluoridation for community water systems, and its effectiveness in preventing tooth decay throughout one’s lifetime.” But go ahead and ask your doctor and dentist – I’m betting they’re in agreement with the CDC, EPA, HHS, and every respected medical and dental organization in the country on the benefits of fluoride.
James Gennaro is a New York City Councilman representing the 24th District.