Fluoride is not the Culprit in Flint

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No one who has watched events unfold in Flint, Mich. can feel anything but deep frustration that a city’s water supply became tainted and undrinkable—largely because of decisions that seem to have placed cost-cutting ahead of human health. Unfortunately, a handful of people opposed to community water fluoridation are trying to hijack the water crisis in Flint to push their own agenda. Our meetings with representatives of communities of color in Colorado indicate that people want to understand what happened in Flint- and how to prevent it from happening here.

First, let’s review the dynamics that preceded the Flint crisis. City residents used to receive their drinking water from the Detroit water system, which adds fluoride to reduce the rate of tooth decay. In 2013, with a state-appointed emergency manager at the helm, the financially troubled city of Flint decided to join a new water authority that planned to build a pipeline to Lake Huron. However, the pipeline wasn’t going to be ready for several years.

According to investigative journalists, “Flint could have elected to sign a new contract with the Detroit water system” but chose not to do so “because it was cheaper to take water from the Flint River until the new pipeline was completed.”

Many local water systems add anti-corrosive agents to reduce the risk of lead leaching into drinking water. In fact, a federal rule requires water systems to limit corrosion that could cause a spike in lead or copper exposure. Yet the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) failed to ensure that water drawn from the Flint River was properly treated with an anti-corrosive agent.

Research conducted by our colleagues at the American Fluoridation Society demonstrates that nowhere in the Flint water crisis is the word(s) “fluoride” or “community water fluoridation” mentioned.  And why would they? Fluoride had nothing at all to do with the Flint water crisis. In addition, the water drawn from the local river was not optimally fluoridated—another way in which the public’s health was compromised.

Anti-fluoride activists claim that fluoridation causes lead to leach from service lines into drinking water, but the evidence doesn’t support this assertion. When Flint received fluoridated water from Detroit, there were no disturbing lead levels. Indeed, as its 2014 water quality report confirms, Detroit’s water complies with federal lead and copper standards.

A few months ago, the Water Research Foundation issued an updated report on the topic of lead and copper corrosion. In this report of nearly 20,000 words, two words never appear: fluoride or fluoridation. Why? Clearly, water quality experts do not view fluoridated water as anything to fear in terms of lead exposure. And neither should we.

Rather than waiting for someone to start circulating unfounded fears, we encourage all who care about oral health to talk about the importance of water fluoridation. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, lead is “rarely detected in most drinking water supplies.” Most metropolitan water systems invest tremendous time and resources to carefully monitor water quality.

We in Colorado are fortunate to have the vast majority of our public water supply fall as snow in the Rocky Mountains. Let’s advocate for and enjoy safe, fluoridated tap water. Let’s preserve fluoridation where it exists and expand it to new communities. And let’s not allow anyone to use Flint’s anguish for their own selfish reasons.