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Fluoridated water faces backlash, but experts still favor it

University of Rochester Medical Center

For decades, communities across the United States have fluoridated their water in the name of public health. Many studies have shown that fluoride strengthens and improves teeth and reduces the incidence of tooth decay. But some communities have decided against providing fluoridated water for a number of reasons. This week on “Take Care,” Dr. William Bowen explains why he believes fluoridating public water is still a good idea.

Click 'Read More' to hear our interview with Dr. Bowen.

Dr. William Bowen is a top researcher in the field of dental health. He’s professor emeritus at the Center for Oral Biology at the University of Rochester Medical Center. Bowen has worked with the Food and Drug Administration and headed the panel on safe use of fluoride for the Center for Disease Control.

Fluoride is a naturally occurring element that plays an important role in the formation of tooth enamel. When used in low amounts, it can help prevent the formation of tooth decay. It started being added to drinking water by the government starting in the late 1940s after dental decay became the most common reason army recruits failed their physical fitness exam. According to Dr. Bowen, the effects were seen quickly, as incidents of tooth decay and cavities dropped dramatically.

Today, Dr. Bowen says roughly 75 percent of the country’s population drinks fluoridated water. “The benefits are truly phenomenal. For every dollar spent on water fluoridation, it probably saves $17-30. It’s an amazing return on investment.”

But recently, some communities have ceased their fluoridating operations. In the past decade alone, over 130 communities, ranging from Wichita, Kansas to Pulaski, New York, have stopped fluoridating their water.

Some residents and municipal leaders are worried that fluoride has the potential to corrode water pipes, a primary concern cited in Pulaski when they voted to stop fluoridation in November. Dr. Bowen does not believe this is a legitimate concern. “I have not seen any evidence whatsoever that the adding of fluoride has the slightest effect on the corrosion of pipes. This is a postulated mechanism, or effect, that is divorced from reality. It simply doesn’t happen,” he says.

In other places, community members feel that the adding of fluoride to the drinking water is an example of government overstepping their boundaries, even if it was done in the name of public health.

Dr. Bowen believes dental health is too much of an important issue for government not to intervene. “The public spends over $80 billion a year treating dental disease, and of that, about $40 billion can be attributed to rotting teeth. Rotting teeth continues to be one of the leading reasons for people going to the emergency room. Also, it’s one of the leading causes for people being absent from work and school,” he says. “It benefits rich and poor alike. To expect people to spend money on oral disease treatment who have barely enough to live on is an unrealistic expectation.”

Some people believe that fluoridated water has adverse health effects. For example, a recent Harvard public health study linked fluoride with lower IQ levels in children. According to Dr. Bowen, at the level fluoride is added to the water (less than 1 part per million), there should be no adverse effects, and that research has been done on the effects fluoridated water has on every system of the body to validate his conclusion.

Dr. Bowen recommends consulting a dentist about how to increase your fluoride exposure if there is no fluoride in your water.