A panel of scientists says the EPA may be allowing unhealthy levels of fluoride in the water supply

How much is too much of a good thing for us?


A national panel of scientists has charged the federal government with allowing too much fluoride in drinking water, which leaves children at risk of severe tooth enamel damage and adults prone to weakening of bones that could cause fractures.

The Environmental Protection Agency requested that the National Academies' National Research Council re-examine its standard, which now allows a maximum of 4 milligrams of fluoride per liter of water.

Some communities add fluoride to drinking water to protect against tooth decay, although in concentrations much lower than the EPA's standard. About 200,000 Americans have drinking water that contains fluoride at concentrations at or above the EPA's standard.

Some communities have natural sources of the compound, and pollution from industries can increase fluoride levels.

The report, released this week, is the first to conclude that there are legitimate health concerns about the existing standard. The health and wisdom of fluoridation in water supplies has been debated in the United States for several decades.

The panel of 12 unanimously decided that the existing standard is not protecting the public from serious health effects and recommended that the EPA lower it.

The scientists determined that people who drink water containing the allowable amount of fluoride are "likely to experience more fractures" because the compound can weaken bones over a lifetime of exposure.

In addition, about 10 percent of children in communities with fluoride levels at or near the allowable level develop severe tooth enamel fluorosis, which can cause yellowing of developing teeth and damage the enamel.

Dr. John Doull, a pharmacology and toxicology professor at the University of Kansas Medical Center who chaired the panel, said that the scientists are not recommending a specific amount of fluoride - only that it should "clearly be less than four."

Dentists say that fluoridation has important health benefits by protecting people from cavities. The panel did not dispute that, saying that they were only charged with determining whether the allowable amount in water posed any health threats.

Doull emphasized that the panel is not saying that fluoridation of water supplies has adverse health effects.

The concentrations intentionally added to some communities' drinking water to prevent tooth decay are much lower than the EPA's standard.

"An evaluation of the safety or efficacy of those lower concentrations were outside the charge to the committee," Doull said.

The panel only researched the effects of much higher levels of fluoride that can contaminate water, mostly from natural leaching from rocks or soil.

Throughout the country, most areas with public water supplies have such low fluoride levels that they must add more to reach the optimal levels.

Dave Heumann, project manager for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's fluoridation project, said, "It's a rare city that happens to naturally have the right amount of fluoride in the water and doesn't have to fluoridate. The 50 largest cities in America have to." Heumann also chairs the fluoride standards committee of the American Waterworks Association, a national association of water officials.

Marla Cone writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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