As a mother, I want to ensure that, as much as possible, what my children ingest leads to their best possible health. I am grateful to be part of a community that is knowledgeable about healthy food, sustainable farming practices, and responsible waste practices. I am also hopeful that soon we can go even farther and follow in the footsteps of some countries that are banning GMO foods and many other know toxins from their food markets altogether. But, with all this progress, I’ve still yet to hear much talk amongst mothering groups about what, for me, is a giant elephant in the room.
What about the safety of our drinking water?
It’s fairly common knowledge that water in most American cities is treated with fluoride, chlorine, and other chemicals to keep it “safe.” The Environmental Protection Agency has been in charge of the safety of our water since 1978 (1). Today, the United States has some of the safest water supplies in the world in terms of preventing outbreaks of disease (1). But, let’s take a closer look at what we are adding to our water, and what that means for those of us ingesting it.
So what is really done to “keep our water safe?” The details become very chem-heavy so, for brevity’s sake, I’ll sum up what is done in most city-treated water (aka not well water). When water is collected, a chemical is added that has an extra positive ion. That ion bonds with dirt to form sediment that has a higher density (makes it heavier) than the water and can be filtered out via gravity. Then, we add another chemical, usually chlorine (Um…like bleach? Yup….like bleach) to kill any bacteria or parasites that may be lurking. While the idea of drinking bleach water is a little alarming, we also don’t get cholera outbreaks, so that’s good. THEN, we add fluoride, a mineral that exists in nature and is considered safe in small doses.
The good news there, folks, is that fluoride is a great tooth enamel strengthener, decreasing cavities by up to 25%. The CDC touts water fluoridation as one of the 10 “great public health achievements of the 20th century” due to its “contribution to the large decline in cavities in the United States since the 1960s”. However, they, in the same beat, go on to say that “cavities are still one of the most common chronic diseases of childhood.” They also review all the ways you can get the benefits of fluoride if you don’t live in an area with fluoridated water, like, ahem, brushing your teeth with fluoride toothpaste that you then spit out. (2)
The Trouble with Fluoride
In 2014, the well respected medical journal, Lancet Neurology published this review of Neurobehavioral effects of developmental toxicity which was completed in a joint endeavor with the National Institutes of Health. They had previously warned about 6 toxins in a 2006 review. In this update, they add six additional developmental neurotoxicants to the list: manganese, fluoride, chlorpyrifos, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, tetrachloroethylene, and the polybrominated diphenyl ethers …..(3).<record scratch>
Hold up, I’m all for the prevention of cavities, but did you say… NEUROTOXICANTS???
Yups. Yes, they did. The scientists concluded that,
Neurodevelopmental disabilities, including autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, and other cognitive impairments, affect millions of children worldwide, and some diagnoses seem to be increasing in frequency.
Industrial chemicals that injure the developing brain are among the known causes for this rise in prevalence. (3)
According to this study published in The Journal of Environmental Health Perspectives in 2012, researchers found that children tested in areas where water fluoride is higher have “significantly lower IQ scores than those who live in low fluoride areas.” (4)
The National Academies Press published this review by the National Research Counsel (NRC) on Fluoride in drinking water in which they discuss research in both human and animal models showing:
Fluoride has a direct effect on the brain’s areas involved in memory. “Recently, the number of receptors for acetylcholine has been found to be reduced in regions of the brain thought to be most important for mental stability and for adequate retrieval of memories.”
Fluoride exposure decreases lipids and phospholipids (which coat the brain cells), phosphohydrolases and phospholipase D, and protein content of the brain. These substances are responsible for neurotransmission, regulation of sugars that the brain uses for energy potentially impairing function.
Fluoride exposure also increases free radicals in the brain (nasty substances that go around damaging cells) in several ways. “These changes have a bearing on the possibility that fluorides act to increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.”
The NRC completed this large scale review in 2006. There was also a Harvard review article published in 2012 in which the author of the study, Philippe Grandjean, concludes, ““Fluoride seems to fit in with lead, mercury, and other poisons that cause chemical brain drain”. (6)
But the controversial debate that remains is this: Is preventing cavities worth the mass administration to over 70% of the population with a known neurotoxin (7)? After all, the lethal dose is said to be 5-10G for an adult and 16mg/kg body weight for children (7). The dose in the water is much below that, but the IQ study referenced above strongly suggests a dose-response. Meaning, a lower dose has less negative effect than a higher dose, but still has an effect. The CDC and other large organizations think that small negative effect is worth it.
Not to go totally Erin Brockovich over here, but… I. Ain’t. Buyin’. It. While the CDC celebrates that fluoride was great in the 1960’s, I’m gonna go ahead and ask that someone raise the bar to today’s standards. I mean, in the 1960’s, cigarettes were also advertised by that same era of physicians. Cigarettes?!
It turns out that the original dogma proposed in the 1940s and 1950s that fluoride had to be ingested in childhood to strengthen teeth before they erupt was mistaken. This 2004 review in the journal Caries Research concluded that topical fluoride (like the one you get at the dentist office) is a safer and more effective method than ingesting fluoridated water (8). Other factors also play a large role in cavity risk such as what bacteria grow in your mother’s mouth (9). This 2017 study in Frontiers of Pediatrics concluded that,
The major contributing factors for the for the high prevalence of ECC are improper feeding practices, familial socioeconomic background, lack of parental education, and lack of access to dental care (10).
The final argument proposed is that many people can’t afford to take their children to the dentist for fluoride varnishing or maintain satisfactory dental care at home due to socioeconomic factors. I would argue that it seems like it would be a good idea to ask the parents of those children whether they are more worried about cavities or the increased risk of neurological toxicity before mass public action is taken like fluoridating the whole cities-worth of water.
While I am picking on fluoride here, the second overarching point is the introduction of more and more chemicals via pesticide and herbicide treatments of irresponsible industrial farming into our water system (See: Volume Two of Save Our Water Series for more on that). While treatment plants do their best to filter and treat it, we have to decide if that is a risk we are willing to take with the information we have gathered about the amounts of these chemicals that exist our food, water sources, and the quality of the air that we breathe.
What to do
Even if it is deemed “safe”, I cannot help but cringe when I’m thirsty and take a sip of water fountain water, or watch my kids drink a mouthful that smells like the pool at the YMCA (you know what I’m talking about). But there’s a simple solution!
If you have city water, there are filtration systems that can be used in your home for ingesting: cooking or drinking. The one I most commonly recommend is the Berkey Water Filtration System. This has fluoride filters, chlorine filters, and the test results of the filters efficacy are posted on the website. One of these filters is good for a family of two to four to provide clean, chemical free, drinking and cooking water for a span of 12,000 gallons. We have been filtering our family’s water this way for nearly 7 years.
One of the ways to filter water that has made a buzz in health food stores is reverse osmosis water. The concept here, is the process takes water with bigger molecules in it, i.e. saltwater or water treated with chemical molecules, and pushes it through a membrane that only fits the water through and not the other molecules. It’ll filter out any added minerals or heavy metals in your water as well, such as mercury.
Additional options from Pure Water Freedom include a variety of filters that directly hook to your kitchen sink and/or refrigerator, along with reverse osmosis systems. Take a look!
So I have to ask again… should our health goals should be prioritizing a small improvement in prevention of cavities versus the brain health of the citizens? Just because it isn’t close to the lethal dose, doesn’t mean the dosage in our water supply isn’t still dangerous. Particularly for smaller bodies.
If you’re as passionate about this as my husband and I tend to be, another proactive thing you can do is contact your local state Representative. Voicing our concerns for public health may take a lot of noise, but hopefully the squeaky wheels will get the grease eventually.
Kristy is a wife, mother of 2 children, one with no cavities and one with 6 (where were you on that one fluoride?)