What is fluoride?
Fluoride (F-) is the anion, the reduced form of fluorine, one of the halogens (as chlorine) on the periodic table. Inorganic compounds, such as sodium fluoride (NaF) containing fluorine are referred to as fluorides.
Where is fluoride found?
Fluoride is a natural mineral occurring in most water sources and is also one of the most commonly used industrial chemicals. This chemical is used in the manufacturing of high octane petrol, fridges, air conditioners, plastics, semiconductors, fluorescent light bulbs, and herbicides. Although some countries add fluoride to their public drinking water, there is an ongoing debate over this matter.
What are the health risks of fluoride?
In 1992 nearly 60% of Americans drank from fluoridated systems. Over thirty countries fluoridated their drinking water including Switzerland, Columbia, Mexico, Spain and Germany. The most common harmful effect of fluoride is dental fluorosis, and occurs during the early development of teeth. The result is discolouring and mottling of teeth. Severe critics of fluoridation labelled this process: A 50 year old blunder and cover-up.
James Donahue writes (www.viewzone.com/fluoride.html): In short, fluoride is a poison. This is not news to the medical world. The journal of the American Medical Association and the New England Journal of Medicine have both reported greater incidence of hip fractures in fluoridated areas. The National Institute of Health Services has linked fluoridation with cancer.
New studies on fluoride’s impact on childhood IQ was done in Brazil, China, India, Italy, Mexico and the United States in 2007. These studies showed that, not only teeth, but also the brain may be impacted by too much fluoride during infancy and childhood.1
Which countries are resisting fluoridation?
In 1970 through to 1990 some European countries reversed their stance. Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Finland stopped fluoridation. Countries like France, Luxembourg, Denmark, Austria and Belgium have never fluoridated their public drinking water.
What about South Africa?
In September 2000 the Department of Health legislated in respect of fluoridation of potable water in South Africa. Some citizens considered this as unconstitutional as the use of fluoridated water is forced on consumers who have no choice in the matter. Rand Water and other water boards made several submissions to the relevant ministries. Rand Water sought indemnity from the Department of Health against any health claims that could arise or from fluoridation. This could also have a serious impact on the environment.
Fluoridation of Rand Water drinking water.
The Water Page reports (www.africanwater.org/randwater):
1 Rocha-Amador D, et al. (2007). Decreased intelligence in children and exposure to fluoride and arsenic in drinking water. Cadernos de Saude 23 (Suppl 4): S579-87 and also Trevedi MH, et al. (2007). Effect of high fluoride water on intelligence of school children in India. Fluoride 40(3): 178-183.
Fluoride, in the correct concentration, is effective in protecting teeth and is especially necessary in children within the 1 to 10 year age group. The rationale for supplementing potable water with fluoride is that South Africans, particularly those in rural areas who do no use fluoridated toothpaste, would benefit. Given that most people in rural areas do not receive piped water the benefit will not reach the target population. Furthermore only 0.65% of the water produced by Rand Water is used for drinking purposes. This equates to 19 000 m3 of the 3 000 000 m3 sold daily, which means that 99,35% or R25 000 of the direct costs (chemical costs per day) is not effectively utilised for the intended purpose. The question thus arises, how cost effective is this method of augmenting dietary fluoride intake? Rand Water will introduce 1 500kg of fluoride daily into potable water.
Approximately 1 000kg of fluoride per day will find its way into water streams. This may have long-term negative consequences on the water environment. The cost of de-fluoridation can amount to as much as R5.50/m3 if reverse osmosis is used and the cost of using alternative methods of removing fluoride from water such as the use of activated alumina is estimated at R1.80/m3. Who will be expected to pay this cost?
Rand Water does not consider fluoridation of water as the highest priority for South Africa. In fact, the total estimated national cost of R30 million per annum should rather be used to extend the provision of free water to South Africans. Based on Rand Water’s experience the R30 million could extend water provision to some 300 000 unserved consumers. Considering the above costs and the large sector of the targeted population, that will not be reached through water fluoridation, the question raised is whether alternative methods of fluoride augmentation such as supplementing milk, sugar, salt, maize meal have been thoroughly investigated. These may have a much better change of reaching the target population, especially if fluoridated foods are subsidised such that it is cheaper than non-fluoridated foods.
Although it seems that Rand Water is quite comfortable with the “correct concentration” (0,7 mg/L) we need to take the warning of the CSIR to heart. Pretoria News of August 26, 2004 quotes Bettina Genthe, a water specialist of the CSIR: If we think something is potentially harmful of toxic, especially with malnourished people, I think we need to hold off. The benefits of protecting people’s teeth compared to potentially affecting their whole body … I don’t think it’s the right way to go, until we know more. There are too many gaps in the scientific data.
In a study done by the University of the Western Cape2 on natural fluoride in different municipalities’ drinking water sources the following conclusion was made:
Great variation exist in the drinking water fluoride concentrations amongst the different sources, which could have a major impact on the fluoride concentration of mixed drinking water reservoirs, especially when the ratio of water mixing changes as a result of dry seasons. When this happens, the municipalities should inform the concerned authorities and role players such as dentists, doctors and chemists to prevent over dosage. Will this really happen?
Let us hope that fluoridation in public drinking water systems in South Africa will die a quiet death. There are other means of fluoridation, e.g. in table salt. At least people will have the democratic right to decide for themselves whether to use it or not.
2 Grobler S., Basson R.A. and Stuhlinger, M. (2005). South African Drinking Water Fluoride Concentrations in Different Municipal Sources. University of the Western Cape, Cape Town, South Africa.