What About Fluoride?

Collecting water in central Africa: a third of the world"s population lacks access to clean supplies.© Benelux Press

In the parental rush to provide children with only the healthiest, purest, most wholesome ingredients for life, many families opt to serve bottled water along with the mashed carrots and multi-grain Cheerios. Why? Because they’re worried about the contaminants in tap water, including fluoride. But fluoride is added to many bottled waters, and it also gets in some brands unintentionally. Critics say that people who drink bottled water aren’t getting enough fluoride.

Since the 1940s, most American municipal water supplies have been routinely dosed with fluoride in a grand attempt to ward off tooth decay. A 1991 study by the Public Health Service credited fluoridation with reducing cavity rates by 20 to 40 percent.

Tap water fluoridation is not without its critics, however. Groups such as Citizens for Safe Drinking Water argue that monitoring of the process is inadequate, and they complain that much of the fluoride used in municipal water supplies is a byproduct of the phosphate fertilizer industry. Several U.S. cities, as well as Japan, Germany, Austria, Denmark and Sweden, have ended the procedure, often citing a possible link to increased risk of bone cancer. Though the EPA officially supports fluoridation of drinking water, Dr. J. William Hirzy of the EPA professional employees" union asked Congress for a national moratorium on the process. Hirzy says fluoride doubles the rate of hip fractures and hearing loss in seniors.

While some consumers choose bottled water to avoid fluoride—even though many brands have tested positive for the chemical—others worry that the plastic bottles don’t contain enough fluoride. The American Dental Association (ADA) argues, "A majority of bottled waters on the market do not contain optimal levels of fluoride." Assistant Professor of Dentistry James Lalumandier of Case Western Reserve University says he is concerned that many children might be at increased risk of tooth decay from drinking low-fluoride bottled water. But dentist Ronald Linden of Connecticut says, "People get so much fluoride in the general food supply—from fruits, vegetables, seafood, tea and so on—and from toothpaste that the debate is moot."

The ADA recommends people check with their dentist about individual fluoride needs. The organization is also calling for bottled water companies to indicate the fluoride concentration on product labels. Several brands are now intentionally fluoridated, including offerings from Abita Springs, Crystal Springs, Culligan, Mountain Park and Pure American.

Research assistance provided by Kerri Linden