Since the 1960s, the government has added fluoride to the drinking water in some parts of the UK with the aim of preventing tooth decay. The first large scheme began in Birmingham in 1964. Today, 10% of England’s population receives fluoridated tap water, which is 5.8 million people. The places where fluoridated water is most common are Birmingham, Staffordshire and Dudley.
Fluoridation is a controversial topic. On one side of the argument, people claim that water fluoridation poses health risks and is therefore too dangerous to add to tap water. Meanwhile, supporters of water fluoridation point out that that there is no evidence of side-effects at normal doses.
In the early 20th century, scientists noticed that people living in areas with naturally high levels of fluoride also had low levels of tooth decay. This led to an experiment in an American city called Grand Rapids, where the city’s officials started adding fluoride to the water supply. Over the next few years, scientists found that the people in Grand Rapids enjoyed lower rates of tooth decay. In light of these findings, other towns and cities around the world quickly adopted artificial water fluoridation.
In 2015, an independent organisation of researchers known as the Cochrane Collaboration analysed studies into water fluoridation. They found many flaws in these studies. For example, they found that studies from before 1975 are no longer relevant because there was a widespread adoption of fluoride-containing toothpaste after 1975. The findings of the Cochrane Collaboration shed doubt on the usefulness of mass water fluoridation.
What are the benefits of fluoridated water?
We know for certain that fluoride helps to prevent cavities. This is shown in cities across the UK and the world. For example The Telegraph claims that in Manchester, where there is no fluoridated tap water, the rate of tooth decay is twice that than in Birmingham, where fluoridated tap water is commonplace.
What are the dangers of fluoride?
One known danger of fluoride is a condition known as fluorosis. The condition is where bones and teeth lose their minerals and become porous. However, fluorosis only occurs at very high levels of fluoride. The amounts added to tap water are too small to cause fluorosis.
Some preliminary research suggests that high doses of fluoride might be toxic to the brain and nerve cells. Furthermore, other studies have found that fluoride might cause learning and memory problems at high doses. However, the fluoride level used in these studies is higher than the levels found in water supplies.
The bottom line
We know for certain that fluoride helps prevent cavities. But since we already add fluoride to toothpaste, so do we really need to add it to our drinking water as well?
To answer this question, more research is needed. Governments need to know exactly how much fluoride they should be adding to the water supply. Given that too much fluoride poses health risks, we shouldn’t add use any more fluoride than necessary. Scientists also need to perform more research on the adverse health effects of fluoride on the brain.