New Internationalist


Issue 273

Questions that have always intrigued you about the world will appear in this, your section,
and be answered by other readers. Please address your answers and questions to ‘Curiosities’.

What are the benefits or disadvantages of adding fluoride to tap water?

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POLYP Cartoon [image, unknown]
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POLYP Cartoon [image, unknown]
POLYP Cartoon [image, unknown]

Fluoride is a naturally occurring element that is found spontaneously in some water supplies. The effect of fluoride in water supplies on tooth decay was established in the 1930s. A survey of 21 American cities showed an inverse relationship between tooth decay and the concentration of fluoride in water.

The safety of water fluoridation has been endorsed by all major national and international bodies. At a conference on water fluoridation in June 1995 in Birmingham, England, the Chief Dental Officer of the World Health Organization described water fluoridation as the foundation-stone of its dental policy. Claims that fluoridation of public water leads to cancer and immunological damage have been thwarted by a mass of evidence to the contrary.

Community water fluoridation provides the greatest benefit to those in the greatest need and has been proposed to be the most cost-effective preventative programme in healthcare.

It is an effective way of improving the world’s dental health, even more salient for those who have no access to professional dentistry.

Ross Mc Kinlay BDS MDSc
Edinburgh, Scotland

I am a dental surgeon in a very small minority indeed. I am a female living and working in the south west of Scotland, the area with the highest tooth-decay rate in Britain – but I am actively opposed to fluoridation of the water supply.

The advantage of fluoride is solely dental. The assimilation of the fluoride ion into developing tooth enamel has been proved to increase resistance to dental decay significantly. The disadvantage is that it is not only absorbed into teeth. It is absorbed into all developing tissues and it has not been proved to be as completely safe as the pro-lobby would have you believe. It is concentrated in bone and excreted by the kidneys and there is evidence that it enhances the risk of osteoporosis and kidney diseases.

The age-group targeted for treatment are the under-seven-year-olds. The dental tissues have completed mineralization by the time the first permanent molars have erupted. Further ingestion after age six has no effect on the teeth, therefore the administration of this drug to the general population via drinking water is criminal when there is little evidence that infants even drink tap water at all. All the ones I see in my practice are there because they drink ‘juice’.

In conclusion my opinion is that administration of fluoride is a necessary adjunct to oral hygiene education in disadvantaged areas, but the decision to swallow it should be entirely voluntary. Topical preparations and dietary supplements are freely available; what is missing is public information.

Margaret S Herbertson BDS
New Cumnock , Scotland

photo by ANDREW KOKOTKA Research suggests that fluoride can cause a thickening of the bone around elderly people’s hips, leading to fractures. Others have drawn links between fluoride and cancer. Large amounts can also cause children’s teeth to become brown and mottled.

But I think the main objection to adding fluoride to tap water is the moral argument against ‘mass medication’. If 50 per cent of the population is depressed should we be putting Valium in tap water? Similarly, with fluoride in tap water we are removing the element of choice and freedom.

Kevin Barnes Cleney
London, England

awaiting your answers

Why in most communities in the world do women live longer than men?

Eric Marsh,
Tasmania, Australia.

What proportions of the earth’s arable land is currently used for the cultivation of drugs and stimulants, including coffee, tea, tobacco, grapes, hops, marijuana, coca and opium?

Klaus Graichen
London, England

If you have any questions or answers please send them to Curiosities, New Internationalist, 55 Rectory Road, Oxford OX4 1BW, UK, or to your local NI office (see inside front cover for addresses).


©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995

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