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Government recommends lower fluoride levels in drinking water

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SALT LAKE CITY -- The federal government recommends lowering fluoride levels in water for the first time in 50 years.

Fluoride has been controversial in Utah and levels vary drastically from one water system to another. Nationwide, there's been a rise in fluorosis, which causes spotting and streaking on children's teeth.

41% of children ages 12-15 had fluorosis in a study done from 1999-2004. That's up from nearly 23% from a study in 1986-87. -CDC

Fluoride was first added to water in the U.S. in the 1940s to prevent tooth decay in kids. The U.S. Health Department supports fluoridation's effectiveness in preventing tooth decay at all ages.

Salt Lake County started fluoridation in 2003. Fifty-five percent of Utah children from 6 to 8 years old have at least one filling or untreated cavity. Utah adults also have dental restorations and decay at a rate that is above the national average.

The CDC has recognized water fluoridation as one of 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century.

"Since we have put fluoride in the water, the number of cavities have dropped," said Dr. Tony Tidwell, a Holladay dentist.

He showed us pictures of teeth with fluorosis. Spotting and streaking ranged from small white spots to brownish spotting on the severe end.

"We don't see it very much," he said of fluorosis in Utah. "Once in a while, especially when parents are giving their children fluoride tablets and the child's drinking the water at the same time, they can get too much."

A new national study showed too much fluoride caused spots on the teeth of two out of five teenagers. One reason is we now get fluoride in toothpaste, mouth rinses, and other sources, in addition to the water.

Only 51% of Utah citizens have drinking water with fluoride levels adequate to prevent cavities. Nationally, the number is 72.4%. -CDC

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends a proposal to change the recommended fluoride level to 0.7 milligrams per liter of water. The Environmental Protection Agency will review whether the maximum cutoff of 4 milligrams per liter is too high. The standard since 1962 has been a range of 0.7 to 1.2 milligrams per liter.

Salt Lake County already lowered the fluoride level for its water systems in anticipation of the federal recommendation.

What is... fluorosis?
Fluorosis occurs when a child gets too much fluoride during the years of tooth development. Most cases of fluorosis are mild and will appear as tiny white specks or streaks that are often unnoticeable. However, in severe cases of enamel fluorosis, the appearance of the teeth is marred by discoloration or brown markings. -American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry

The recommendation will not affect the many counties and systems statewide that do not fluoridate water. Some have natural fluoride levels considered optimal to prevent cavities. Others choose not to fluoridate.

Tidwell says the new level will still reduce tooth decay, but minimize fluorosis.

"We're reducing it down," says Tidwell, "because they found that the effectiveness is still good at a lower level."

The American Dental Association and the Utah Dental Association support the recommendation.

Compiled with contributions from Jed Boal and Marc Giauque


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