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Ask EWG: What can I do about fluoride in my water?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Question:I recently read a report in which EWG recommended using carbon filtration to filter tap water for drinking. The report pointed out that carbon filtering is less expensive than reverse osmosis filtration, but it didn't mention that carbon filtration does not remove artificially added fluoride from the water. I know that EWG is concerned with the health effects of fluoride, especially for children and pregnant women. Was this an oversight? Answer: It's true that EWG opposes water fluoridation. Let’s take a look at the problem and what you can do to protect yourself and your family.

Water fluoridation is a public health problem.

Fluoride is often added to municipal water to reduce tooth-decay in children, but when consumed in water it actually has very little effect on dental health. The chemical is most effective when applied directly to teeth in toothpaste or mouth-rinse.

A growing body of evidence demonstrates the known and potential health consequences of fluoridated water:

  • permanent fluoride spotting on teeth (called dental fluorosis) is common and generally innocuous
  • A 2006 National Research Council review indicated that long-term exposure to fluoride in water increases bone fracture rates.
  • The same review concluded that fluoride might also affect thyroid, immune, and endocrine systems.
  • Perhaps of greatest concern is a 2006 peer-reviewed study by four Harvard scientists and medical doctors indicating a correlation between fluoride exposure and increased incidence of osteosarcoma -- a dangerous bone cancer -- in boys.

So what’s the solution?

Let’s be perfectly clear: the best solution to this public health problem is for local governments to stop fluoridating their water. You can find out if your local water utility adds fluoride by calling or visiting them online. If they do, be sure to express your concerns about the negative health impacts of fluoridation.

In the meantime…

While we recommend that everyone avoid fluoridated tap water whenever they can, the main concern is for pregnant women and bottle-fed infants. Babies are more sensitive to fluoride's effects, and the American Dental Association recommends that their formula not be made with fluoridated water. For those who are able, breast-feeding is the best option for infants. A mother's body filters fluoride out of breast milk.

Activated carbon pitcher filters, refrigerator filters, and tap-mounted filters reduce levels of many kinds of common tap water contaminants (including harmful chlorine byproducts), but not fluoride. Reducing those contaminants as well as fluoride requires a reverse osmosis filter. The price tag on reverse osmosis systems has come down significantly in the past year, but they still cost anywhere from $200 to more than $1000.

While we generally don't recommend that people drink bottled water, it is another option in communities with fluoridated tap water for parents who need to add water to their babies' powdered or concentrated formula. Jugs of bottled water without added fluoride can be found in most grocery stores, but be careful -- the cost can quickly add up to that of an in-home fluoride filter (and the bottled water industry has a significant impact on the environment, as well).

Above all, remember:

Pregnant women and babies need plenty of fluid. If the alternatives above aren't available to you, it's always better to stay hydrated by drinking your local tap water (or using it in formula) than to risk dehydration.

At EWG, we're working for national standards that will ensure that the best, safest tap water is available everywhere. You can learn more about the safety of your tap water at our National Tap Water Quality Database.

Got a question for our researchers? Send it in! We'll select one (or a few) for next month's edition of Ask EWG.

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