In 1940 the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan began adding fluoride to the city’s drinking water.  At the time there was research that suggested that those who drank water regularly with fluoride had fewer cavities and tooth decay.  Many other cities across America followed suit and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) lauded the practice of fluoridation as one of the best public health initiatives of the 20th Century.  Now there is conflicting evidence that the risks associated with long-tern fluoride exposure is detrimental to the body, especially to young children with developing brains, bones and teeth. So, is fluoride good or bad for your teeth? Does long-term consumption of water treated with fluoride have dangerous fluoride side effects?

How Fluoride Helps Teeth

Sugar and bacteria in the mouth form acids that erode the enamel off teeth.  Fluoride helps to re-mineralize teeth and prevent cavities from forming and slowing down or preventing tooth decay.  The effect is topical, though, and there is no evidence that ingesting fluoride is beneficial. In fact parents of newborns are urged not to use fluoridated tap water to make infant formula because of potential damage to developing brains. Parents are also cautioned to only use very tiny amounts of toothpaste on toddlers’ toothbrushes to keep them from swallowing very much fluoride.

The Argument for Fluoridation

The American Dental Association and the International Dental Federation told the world that adding fluoride to drinking water would drastically reduce cavities in tooth decay amongst the world’s people.  After the World Health Organization Endorsed the practice in 1969 many countries joined the U.S. in adding fluoride to drinking water supplies.

Many world renowned organizations and individuals have supported the practice of fluoridation and continue to do so today, despite most European countries discontinuing the practice due to evidence that the health risks of fluoride outweighed the minor benefits of reduced tooth decay.  The American Dental Association strongly advocates for the use of fluoride in drinking water and in 2000 the former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher called community water fluoridation “to be the most cost effective, practical and safe means of reducing and controlling dental decay in a community.”

Despite evidence that excessive exposure to fluoride was causing tooth discoloration called fluorosis, the CDC and the ADA continue to endorse the practice saying fluoride is good for teeth and any cosmetic damage to them is minor and does not out weight the health benefits of drinking fluoridated water.  Most European countries have discontinued the practice citing insufficient evidence that fluoridation significantly reduces tooth decay in the population.

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The Arguments Against Fluoridation

Opponents to the practice of adding fluoride to drinking water have pointed out that it is is actually bad for teeth over time and that the side effects of fluoride on the body are very harmful.

Fluorosis is a condition where exposure to excess fluoride causes light to very dark stains to form on the teeth, sometime accompanied by pockmarks or pits on the surface of the enamel.  Some doctors have pointed out that if fluoride is visibly damaging teeth, it is surely doing damage out of sight inside the body.

The medical authority site WebMD lists consumption of excessive fluoride side effects as:

  • Weakened bones and ligaments
  • Tooth discoloration
  • Nervous system problems
  • Dangerous to pregnant and breastfeeding women

These side effects are listed as a result of high doses of fluoride consumption over a long period of time; and also say the compound is effective at preventing tooth decay.  Some opponents also believe that fluoride reduces intelligence or IQ in children.

Finally, as many opponents of fluoridation have pointed out, there is no benefit from ingesting fluoride since it only works topically on teeth to prevent tooth decay.  The Fluoride Action Network claims the corrosive compound FSM, commonly added to drinking water, leaches lead out of old water pipes and raises levels of it in the blood, which is definitely not good for teeth or the body in general.  This is supported by the Center for Disease Control and water management boards across the country.

To Brush or Not To Brush

Do you need to worry about fluoride side effects? Not if you are an adult and don’t swallow it after you brush your teeth.  If you are a parent, especially to a young child, you should have some concerns about fluoride side effects because children are more likely to put large amounts of toothpaste on their brushes, especially if it is in a fun colored tube and tastes like bubble gum or candy, as many brands marketed to children are. They might be inclined to swallow it rather than spit it out, so parents need to supervise teeth cleaning regularly.