Chapel Hill: Opinion

Research reassures on fluoride safety – Terri Buckner

Terri Buckner
Terri Buckner

Fluoride has been used in community water to reduce the incidence of cavities for nearly 70 years.

Since that time, federal drinking water standards have been reduced to 0.7 parts per million parts of water (0.7 ppm) as more products like toothpaste and mouthwashes have added fluoride. Even with fluoride,the American Dental Association (ADA) estimates that “51 million school hours and 164 million work hours are lost each year due to dental-related illness.”

On Feb. 2, a technical error occurred at the OWASA water treatment plant that released more than the 0.7 ppm of fluoride into the final stages of the treatment process. The overfluoridated water was not released into the distribution system, but those who oppose the addition of fluoride are using the error to once again petition the OWASA Board of Directors to discontinue fluoridation altogether.

As a member of the OWASA Board of Directors, I’ve invested many hours trying to understand the arguments against fluoride. Here’s what I have learned.

Anti-fluoridation Claim: Fluoride is a neurotoxin.

This claim is based on a 2012 meta-analysis of 27 studies conducted in Asia where fluoride occurs naturally in the water at much higher amounts than the 0.7 ppm used in the OWASA treatment process. The paper concluded with the following statement: “children in high-fluoride areas had significantly lower IQ scores than those who lived in low-fluoride areas.”

The authors made no claims about children living in low-fluoride areas like ours, nor did they investigate factors other than fluoride as the explanation for the neurodevelopmental differences. More importantly, these researchers didn’t focus on any benefits that might be associated with fluoride. They were making a case that children who live in areas of high, naturally occurring fluoride are at risk. There is no naturally occurring fluoride in the OWASA reservoirs.

While acknowledging the dangers of excessive fluoride, the World Health Organization states, “There is clear evidence that long-term exposure to an optimal level of fluoride results in diminishing levels of caries (cavities) in both child and adult populations.” Other health organizations that endorse the use of “optimal” levels of fluorideinclude the American Medical Association, American Academy of Family Physicians, National Cancer Institute, American Heart Association, and American Dental Association.

Anti-Fluoridation Claim: Fluoride causes leaching from lead pipes/joints/fixtures.

The bulk of the science says there is no evidence that fluoride causes lead leaching. Nevertheless, no amount of lead is safe. In the mid-1990s OWASA undertook an extensive program to identify and replace lead connectors between our meters and home/business service lines. Today, no known lead service lines are known to exist in the OWASA service area.

Regardless, OWASA is required by law to test the water in a sample of homes that have copper pipes with lead solder every three years. If more than 10 percent of those samples exceed 15 parts per billion, OWASA would be required to modify its anti-corrosion treatment process (which prevents the lead solder from leaching into the water) and undertake a community awareness program on how to reduce lead exposure. In the last 12 years, only one home in the OWASA service district has been found to have a measureable amount of lead and that was a trace amount.

In 2016, customers requested additional testing in 58 homes and a sampling of schools and child care facilities. Of the over 250 samples taken, three came back with minimal but detectable levels of lead. Those residents/administrators were advised, per EPA regulations, on methods to reduce exposure to lead, such as periodically cleaning the faucet aerator, letting the water run for three to five minutes after periods of disuse, and not using water from the hot water tap for drinking, cooking, or preparing beverages including infant formula because hot water is more likely than cold water to contain lead. Follow up testing was also offered.

Anti-fluoridation Claim: OWASA is medicating the community by adding fluoride to the water.

The additive OWASA uses for fluoridation is fluorosilicic acid or hydrofluorosilicate (HFS). HFS and phosphoric acid (a food additive) are both produced from phosphorite rock as a secondary product to the manufacture of phosphate fertilizer. All products used by water treatment plants, including fluoride additives, must meet strict quality standards that assure the public's safety. The EPA regulates drinking water and the FDA regulates food additives. Soft drinks, cereal bars, nondairy creamers, and many other foods contain phosphoric acid. Additives are not drugs.

I avoid using chemicals in my home and personal care products, and I rarely purchase commercially grown fruit and vegetables. So I understand when others share their fears for safe food and water. But the research I have done on fluoride has not yielded any information that gives me concern.

Terri Buckner lives outside Carrboro. You can reach her at