Confused about fluoride? You’re not alone. Many children’s toothpaste boasts a proud “fluoride-free” status, which makes a parent wonder the harm that fluoride might possibly cause for our children. You may even have a well-meaning friend or friendly blogger claim fluoride is a neurotoxin and a poison – which we certainly don’t want for our children! To clear up the confusion, let’s learn a bit about this mysterious substance.
What is fluoride?
Fluoride is a naturally occurring mineral present in soil, water, plants, and animals. Its use in the dental industry dates back to the early 1900s. A dentist in Colorado Springs, Colorado noticed a ubiquitous, strange brown discoloration on his patients’ teeth accompanied by a mysterious lack of tooth decay. It took him and fellow researchers 30 years to discover what caused this: high levels of naturally occurring fluoride in the local water supply.
Today, this brown discoloration is known as “fluorosis” and results when children are exposed to too much fluoride in their first eight years of life (when teeth are still coming in).
When was fluoride added to our water supply?
Research was done to determine the amount of fluoride that could be present in water without causing fluorosis. After this, researchers in Grand Rapids, Michigan wanted to see if adding fluoride to water would prevent dental decay in the general population. In 1945, Grand Rapids was the first city to fluoridate its water. Researchers followed 30,000 school-age children over a period of 15 years and found that the caries rate (rate of tooth decay) dropped more than 60 percent. Adding fluoride to water was considered a huge scientific breakthrough in the prevention of tooth decay.
Since that time, many more U.S. cities have fluoridated their water, and more regulations have been put in place to ensure that the correct amount is present at any given time. According to the Centers of Disease Control, water fluoridation is considered one of the Ten Great Public Health Achievements of the 20th century.
How does fluoride prevent tooth decay?
- In saliva, fluoride helps remineralize tooth enamel. That means if a cavity has started forming, fluoride can remineralize it and prevent further decay.
- Fluoride in the mouth interferes with cavity-causing bacteria from converting sugar to acid.
- When fluoride is ingested in childhood, it helps make tooth enamel more resistant to acid.
Can fluoride be dangerous for children?
Every major health organization agrees that fluoride, at the correct level, is safe and beneficial for everyone’s dental health. In the past, it was recommended that children who haven’t yet learned how to spit out toothpaste into the sink use fluoride-free toothpaste. But as of 2014, the American Dental Association recommends children under three use a tiny amount of fluoride toothpaste since it does such a good job preventing tooth decay.
Still, there are risks of too much fluoride
As with most things (even water!), too much fluoride can have negative health effects. Fluorosis, of course, is one them. You may notice small, white splotches on your child’s teeth. This is a mild, common case of fluorosis that is merely cosmetic and does not negatively affect teeth. If, however, your child has been exposed to very high levels of fluoride, staining can be brown and cause weakened enamel.
Another risk, of course, is if our children swallow too much fluoride toothpaste or other fluoride-containing products. This is why it’s important to teach children to spit out toothpaste and only use the correct amount per their age. Even so, if your child tries eating that yummy flavored toothpaste, it would be hard to consume an amount that could be life-threatening. If you suspect your child has consumed too much, you should call the Poison Help Hotline.
So … how about the neurotoxin claim?
There are some studies on animal and human populations linking fluoride with lower IQ levels. The Lancet Neurology, however, says such research is inconclusive. According to their report, “No credible scientific studies show a relation between fluoride consumption and IQ levels; however, several have shown that fluoride ingested at recommended levels is not harmful.” Phew!
For further study on fluoride safety, check out the Campaign for Dental Healthby the American Academy of Pediatrics.