Myth vs. Fact: Fluoride and Your Health

Fluoridation is one of the greatest public health successes of the 20th century.

Despite the overwhelming success of community water fluoridation at improving oral health outcomes, misinformation continues to circulate about its risks and benefits. From those that call fluoride a communist plot (really) to others that call it a deadly killer, myths about the element are widespread. In fact, over the last few decades, anti-fluoride movements have gained large followings across the country.

Separating Fact from Fiction

In reality, fluoride in municipal water supplies is one of the most important and effective advances in the history of public health.

Since its first application in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1945, the addition of fluoride to municipal water supplies has dramatically improved oral health outcomes across income levels, age groups, racial lines, and geographic areas.

(To learn more about how income, race, and geography impact oral health, check out our previous blog post on systemic barriers impeding oral health care access)

Is fluoride expensive?

At less than 50 cents per person per year, water fluoridation is an incredibly cost-effective treatment that has proven to reduce cavities in children and adults, even helping repair tooth decay in its early stages.

But isn’t fluoride an unnatural substance we shouldn’t consume?

No. Fluoride occurs naturally in a wide variety of foods and beverages. In fact, if you’ve ever eaten fried shrimp, mashed potatoes and gravy, or raisins, you have consumed fluoride at higher concentrations than you do when drinking fluoridated tap water!

If you want to know more, check out this USDA report on foods and beverages that contain naturally occurring fluoride.

The truth is that we naturally consume fluoride every day.

However, while there is fluoride in all sorts of foods and beverages, it generally doesn’t naturally occur at high enough levels to benefit our teeth.

Adding fluoride to tap water hasn’t subjected us to a toxic hazard. On the contrary, community water fluoridation has simply ensured that many people have the same access to it in healthy, beneficial quantities.

If fluoride is in our water at higher concentrations than occur naturally, does that make it dangerous?

Not at all. Consider this:

For a 165-pound adult, 12 standard glasses of water consumed quickly is considered a lethal dose. By comparison, in order to obtain a lethal dose of fluoride, you would have to consume more than 15 12-ounce glasses of fluoridated tap water in rapid succession.

So how does fluoride work?

In the course of a day, we all consume foods and beverages that introduce cavity-causing bacteria to our mouths. That bacteria weakens our enamel — the hard, outer coating that protects our teeth.

When we brush our teeth with fluoridated toothpaste, eat fluoride-containing food, or drink fluoridated tap water, fluoride replaces hydroxide ions in our enamel. This process strengthens our teeth, prevents decay, and can even help reverse existing decay in its early stages.

How can I make sure I’m getting enough fluoride?

The best thing you can do to protect your teeth is to make sure that you brush for two minutes twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste. You can also use fluoride mouthwash, and make sure to drink fluoridated tap water to keep your teeth happy and healthy!

And yes, kids can use fluoride too. The rule of thumb is, “smear up to three years,” which means you should use just a smear of fluoride toothpaste to brush a child’s teeth until they are three years old. From 3-6 years old, use a pea-size amount of fluoride toothpaste.

Source: American Dental Association

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Sources for more information:

Blog Education Spotlight

Building Oral Health Champions: Reflecting on a Semester with Campbell University Public Health Students

“The more questions I asked, the more interested I became,” said Devin Olden to his fellow public health students at Campbell University as he spoke on the importance of oral health to overall health.

Olden was one of four students to participate in Team Oral Health, a practicum experience led by the Foundation for Health Leadership and Innovation’s (FHLI) North Carolina Oral Health Collaborative (NCOHC), designed to introduce Campbell University public health students to oral health issues in the state.

On Nov. 21, four of Campbell’s first-year public health students took turns sharing what they learned during the semester-long practicum in which they dove deep into some of the most pressing public health issues facing North Carolina.

Olden and his classmates, Chinenye Odobo, Hannah Faulkner, and Kristen Lamberth, spoke about several pressing topics, including:

  • Disparities in access between urban and rural communities 
  • How language barriers prevent significant portions of the population from seeking care 
  • How interconnected oral health is to a myriad of health issues, from diabetes and cardiovascular disease to Alzheimer’s.  
  • How increasing dental hygienists’ scope of practice can significantly increase access to affordable oral health care among marginalized communities.

“This just opened my eyes into this whole community that I didn’t even know existed, and the challenges they face.”

—Chinenye Odobo

Medfest: Impacting Oral Health in Harnett County

Earlier in the semester, the four Campbell students who made up Team Oral Health stepped out of the classroom to interact directly with the Harnett County community, providing oral health services at Medfest, a pre-event leading up to the Special Olympics.

MedFest events are hosted by Special Olympics North Carolina to help participants receive sports physicals and health examinations before taking part in athletic events.

Campbell’s Team Oral Health worked to add dental screenings and fluoridation treatments to the agenda, as well as fun activities to promote oral health literacy.

At the front of the class, from left to right, Olden, Lamberth, Odobo, and Faulkner talk with fellow students about oral health in North Carolina.

The Takeaway: Prevention is Key for Good Oral Health

Looking back on a semester of learning and service, Team Oral Health made sure to point out the importance of preventive treatment to increase positive oral health outcomes.

Oral health can be incredibly expensive, especially if tooth decay, gum disease, and other issues are left untreated. North Carolinians visit emergency rooms for oral care at twice the national rate, and in operating rooms over 40 million dollars is spent annually.

That cost could be significantly reduced if more North Carolinians had early access to preventative care.

NCOHC and FHLI are working hard, engaging unique partners like the students in Campbell’s MPH program to address disparities in oral health care and increase access to preventive treatments.

“If you recieve preventive treatment early, you significantly reduce costly oral health issues down the road. Unfortunately, so many in North Carolina simply can’t access that first step. We are working to address systemic barriers that limit this type of access”

—Dr. Zachary Brian, Program Director, NCOHC

Dental sealants and fluoridation treatments can significantly reduce the risk of negative oral health outcomes, and they are far more affordable than cavity fillings, tooth extractions, or other restorative procedures.

To learn more, be sure to check out NCOHC’s resources, like our Portrait of Oral Health and our tips for individuals seeking care. To stay up to date, be sure to join our email list.