Is Water Fluoridation Making Tap Water Unsafe?
There has been fluoride in water in the UK since 1955, but a new study has sparked debate about the safety of Britain’s tap water. While our taps have long been considered safe to drink from, the fluoride which is added in order to help prevent tooth decay has been receiving a fair amount of criticism. The fluoridation of the water has been increasingly linked to brain impairment in children, bone disorders, liver and kidney disease, and disfigured teeth. Most recently, the mineral in the water has been suspected of causing tiredness, depression and weight gain.
Researchers at the University of Kent found rates of hypothyroidism 30% higher in areas of England with water fluoridation. Hypothyroidism involves the thyroid gland failing to produce the hormones that regulate the metabolism – a process which has a number of potential negative consequences, the most obvious being weight gain. The study was led by Professor Stephen Peckham, who says that more consideration needs to be given to reducing fluoride exposure.
Other side effects to over-exposure to fluoride include discoloured teeth caused by dental fluorosis, though the UK currently has no recommended limit to daily fluoride consumption.
This type of research has caused growing concern among the public, and local protesters have begun to voice their worries about their tap water. Paddy Holdsworth, of East Yorkshire Against Fluoride, calls the fluoridation of our water “compulsory medication”.
However, Public Health England have insisted that “water fluoridation is a safe and effective public health measure, and shows no association with reduced thyroid function”. In the same spirit, Labour shadow health secretary Andy Burnham calls water fluoridation a “simple way to improve the health of children”.
Elsewhere, experts have highlighted the benefits of fluoride. Leaders at the Royal College of Surgeons’ faculty of dental surgery named water fluoridation as a key factor in reducing the number of children admitted to hospital with tooth decay, and the NHS have noted fluoride’s ability to help prevent tooth decay by strengthening the enamel.
A decade-old review of previous evidence by York University showed that countries in Europe with the largest decrease in tooth decay among children do not fluoridate their water supplies. However, the British Medical Journal point out that “this probably reflects use of fluoridated toothpastes and other factors, including perhaps nutrition”. Overall, they believe that evidence “on the potential benefits and harms of adding fluoride to water is relatively poor”.
According to the British Fluoridation Society, more than five and a half million of us have tap water which is artificially fluoridated to one part per million parts of water (1ppm). This is the case in areas such as Bedfordshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Cheshire, Northumbria and Cumbria. Another 330,000 have water which is naturally fluoridated to the same level; these areas include Hartlepool, Easington, Uttoxeter and parts of North Hampshire and South Berkshire.
With such a significant proportion of the country regularly taking in this amount of fluoride, and many people voicing concerns about fluoridation, it seems clear that we are still lacking sufficient evidence on the risks and benefits of this widespread practice. Many believe that water fluoridation should be replaced with better education on dental care – if people know how to look after their teeth, then the benefits of fluoridation might be unnecessary.