On Wednesday, the United States Food and Drug Administration announced that it’s taking steps to lower the legal level of fluoride in bottled water. The proposed rule would set the maximum concentration of fluoride in bottled water at 0.7 milligrams per liter, a step down from the current standard of 0.8 milligrams.
Fluoride is a historically fraught topic in American health, with scientists — not to mention natural health advocates — arguing contrasting views. It’s a naturally occurring mineral that’s found at fairly low levels in almost all water, and today it’s added by some communities into public drinking water. Water fluoridation began in some parts of the United States in 1945, after scientists determined that its addition to public water supplies led to stronger teeth and fewer cavities.
The US Environmental Protection Agency regulates fluoride in public drinking water, while the FDA regulates bottled water products sold by brands like Perrier, Poland Springs, and Arrowhead — which contain fluoride.
In a statement released Wednesday, Susan Mayne, Ph.D., the director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, explained that most fluoride added to bottled water is already at or below the limit being proposed. This step is an effort to keep the FDA’s rules consistent with a 2015 recommendation made by the U.S. Public Health Service, stating that the optimal fluoride concentration in community water systems is 0.7 milligrams per liter.
Mayne says the FDA’s goal is to strike the right balance between providing enough fluoride to benefit dental health while preventing overexposure.
“Fluoride provides an important public health benefit by helping to reduce cavities and tooth decay,” Mayne explains. “But too much fluoride over a long time when teeth are forming under the gums can cause changes in the appearance of tooth enamel, called dental fluorosis. Striking the right balance is especially important for children under the age of 8 as their permanent teeth are still forming.”
Over the last six decades, community water fluoridation has been an American fixture, but in the past five years doubt over its benefits have increased. These doubts have been presented by legitimate scientists, as well as the more atypical conspiracy theorists. Some studies argue that it’s possible that fluoride exposure contributes to the development of ADHD and thyroid problems, while a meta-analysis by researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health concluded that fluoride may adversely affect cognitive development in children.
“Given that fluoride can damage brain development, I would recommend that the maximum fluoride concentration in bottled water be kept at a lower level than 0.7 mg/L,” Harvard professor Phillippe Grandjean told CNN in response to the FDA news. Grandjean was a co-author of the fluoride meta-analysis.
The results of the meta-analysis have been used by anti-fluoride advocates as reason enough to rethink fluoride: In the past five years, 74 cities have voted to remove fluoride from their drinking water. But others say including these data in the conversation about American water is moot and alarmist. Included in the analysis were studies from China that evaluated natural variations of fluoride in groundwater, and the fluoride existed in concentrations that exceed the legal limit in the United States.
In an effort to see if fluoride really does induce neurotoxicity, scientists exposed rats to various levels of fluoride in 2018. They reported that the rats had no problems in learning, memory performance, or motor skills after consuming water with the maximum level of fluoride allowed by the EPA — 0.7 milligrams per liter.
This leaves us with a government and most scientists saying that the amount of fluoride we’re exposed to is healthy and fine, and other scientists saying there’s enough evidence for us to push pause on the whole drinking fluoride thing. The FDA is open to hearing from Americans on the matter: Today is the first day of a 60-day comment period on the proposed rule.