Is Water Fluoridation Dangerous? A History of Fluoride and Birth Defects

Water fluoridation has been lauded as one of the 10 most important public health advances of the 20th Century and heralded as a key tool in dental health.

While studies in animals have previously shown the chemical to be a neurotoxin, fluoride concentrations in drinking water were believed to be small enough to avoid harming humans. But concerns have reemerged, questioning whether the benefits outweigh the risks.

Specifically, mounting evidence suggests fluoride may hamper brain development and reduce children’s IQs, according to a systemic review last year by the U.S. National Toxicology Program (NTP) of all published studies evaluating the potential neurotoxicity of fluoride.

The report examined hundreds of human and animal studies on the impact of fluoride on brain and cognitive function. Most of the studies evaluated fluoride concentrations that were about twice the level added to drinking water or higher. However, they concluded that “fluoride is presumed to be a cognitive-developmental hazard to humans.”

In an opinion piece published in Environmental Health News following the report, researchers said that the U.S. needs to rethink the addition of fluoride in drinking water for pregnant women and children. The authors noted that the NTP’s conclusion was strengthened by studies showing that children exposed to higher amounts of fluoride during early brain development scored about 3 to 7 points lower on their IQ tests.

“Their conclusion is consequential; about 75% of Americans on community water systems have fluoride in their tap water,” the researchers wrote.

How Fluoridated Water Harms Children’s Cognitive Abilities

In 2006, the National Research Council said there was enough convincing evidence of fluoridated water’s neurotoxic effects in animal studies that EPA should revisit its standards, set 20 years earlier. Newer research on humans now suggests fluoridated water can affect children’s memory and learning abilities if exposed as babies or in the womb.

The history of fluoridation began with a “mystery staining of the teeth” first described by dentist Dr. Frederick McKay in Colorado in 1901 and, independently in Naples in 1902 by Dr. J.M. Eager, an American dentist stationed in Italy. According to Nature, over the following years, McKay became aware of several cases that suggested that the water supply might be responsible for the staining. He also noted that decay rates were much lower in areas with endemic dental staining than in other adjacent areas.

A chemist with ALCOA became concerned that there was a link between this staining and the presence of aluminum in drinking water. The staining had appeared in the town of Bauxite, Arkansas, where ALCOA mined most of their aluminum. H.V. Churchill analyzed water from several areas where the staining was endemic for unusual element concentrations and found the one common factor to all sites to be elevated fluoride levels.

It seemed clear that fluoride levels in the water were related to both the staining of the teeth and reduced decay levels. The U.S. Public Health Service was anxious to investigate this relationship and appointed a dentist, Dr. H.T. Dean, to carry out the research. Dean established that mottling of the teeth was extremely rare at fluoride levels of 1ppm or below, while the preventive effect was to be seen at 1ppm. Dean published the results of his work in 1942.

The History of Fluoride in American Water

Fluoride has been purposely added to American drinking water systems since 1945 to prevent cavities.

The benefits of fluoride in the prevention of tooth decay are predominately topical, only occurring after teeth appear in the child’s mouth. The researchers in the EHN op-ed called for pregnant women and children to filter water to avoid fluoride while instead using fluoride toothpaste to prevent cavities.

In 2016, a group of citizens petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to stop adding fluoride to drinking water. The EPA rejected the petition. In response, the citizen’s group took an unprecedented step and sued the EPA in federal court. EPA lawyers argued that the science was insufficient. The case is still pending.

A study in Canada linked an increase of 1 milligram of fluoride per day — about what is found in about 5 cups of tap water — to a 3.7-point drop in children’s IQs. That finding echoed in a Mexico study is equivalent to neurological damage caused by lead. The study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, changed the editor’s mind about fluoride.

“If my wife or daughter were pregnant, I would advise them to avoid fluoridated water,” said Dr. Dimitri Christakis, editor in chief of JAMA Pediatrics. “There is still a lot of junk science supporting the anti-fluoridation position, but that doesn’t mean it is all junk science and that there aren’t real concerns.”

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