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Fluoride: Is It Safe?

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For this year’s National Children’s Dental Health month, the American Dental Association has selected the slogan “Fluoride in water prevents cavities! Get it from the tap!” Fluoride is especially important for children’s teeth. Ensuring that your child’s teeth are healthy and strong can provide dental health benefits that last their whole life. But even with proven health benefits, fluoride is still a very misunderstood mineral.

What Is Fluoride?

Fluoride is a naturally-occurring mineral that is found in the earth’s crust and water sources. Fluoride is also produced synthetically so that it can be added to water, toothpaste, and other health products.

Fluoride is added to public drinking water in small amounts because of its proven effects in preventing tooth decay. Many dental care products such as toothpaste also contain fluoride. The effects of fluoride on dental health were first discovered in 1901, and the positive effects on tooth enamel were proven in the 1950s. Since then, fluoride has been a crucial aid in preserving the dental health of millions of children and adults. Vancouver started adding fluoride to its public water supply in 1961.

How Does Fluoride Benefit Teeth?

Fluoride concentrates in bones (including teeth), strengthening them. In teeth, fluoride hardens enamel, which prevents tooth decay and other damage. Studies have shown that fluoride is a critical component of cavity prevention. You don’t get enough fluoride from fluoridated drinking water only—you must supplement this with fluoridated toothpaste to get the full dental health benefits.

Fluoride is added to public drinking water in small amounts because of its proven effects in preventing tooth decay . . . Vancouver started adding fluoride to its public water supply in 1961.

Why Is Fluoride Important for Children?

Children’s mouths contain naturally occurring bacteria that feed on sugars in food and drink. As the bacteria feed on these sugars, they produce acid that can wear away tooth enamel and cause cavities. Fluoride counteracts these negative effects by strengthening the enamel and making it tougher for the bacterial acid to wear away.

Fluoride is especially important for children because of their growing teeth. Fluoride both hardens enamel on existing baby teeth and on adult teeth that have yet to emerge. A healthy amount of fluoride ensures that your children will grow strong teeth that can endure the biological factors that cause tooth decay.

Is Fluoride Safe?

If fluoride is consumed in very high doses, it can cause some health issues. The most common of these is dental fluorosis, which causes small white spots on the surface of teeth. Dental fluorosis is relatively benign though—the symptoms are purely cosmetic, and do not cause any health impairments. Dental fluorosis is most common in children under age 8, and is usually caused by children swallowing toothpaste. It can be easily prevented by supervising young children while they brush their teeth and making sure that they spit out their toothpaste after brushing.

In extreme cases, excessive intake of fluoride can cause skeletal fluorosis, which causes stiffness and joint pain. However, the amount of fluoride needed to cause these symptoms would need to be many times higher than the legal limits allowed in drinking water in the U.S., and would require exposure to it for many years. Skeletal fluorosis is really only prevalent in countries with severe water pollution, or in areas where water supplies are in close proximity to natural, geological sources of fluoride. Skeletal fluorosis is a problem in countries in the Middle East and Central Asia, where geological sources of fluoride and lax governmental regulations about water quality combine to create a public health crisis. Fortunately, we don’t have to worry about such concerns in Southwest Washington. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the allowable amount of fluoride in drinking water to 4 micrograms per liter. This is high enough to provide health benefits, but low enough to avoid any negative health effects.

Fluoride is a beneficial additive to both drinking water and toothpaste. Its positive effects on dental health have been proven by medical science for over 60 years. The good news is that you don’t have to go out of your way to ensure that your kids get adequate fluoride. It’s already a part of most public drinking water systems, and just about every toothpaste contains fluoride. The benefits to using fluoride are numerous and well-studied, and the risks are very low. Growing teeth need fluoride, and with minimal effort you can ensure that your children’s teeth grow healthy and strong.

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