What is Dental Fluoride?
Fluoride comes from fluorine, an element that occurs naturally on the earth’s crust and is released from the rocks into the air, soil, and water. As fluorine combines with other elements, it forms fluoride compounds with the other minerals present in soil and rocks. When groundwater passes over the ground, fluoride is released, which means all natural water sources contain a small amount of fluoride.
Because of this, fluoride is present in essentially all food products and beverages. The concentrations vary widely, depending on the fluoride levels found in the natural environment from where the food or water was sourced.
The fluoride level present in water is not enough to prevent tooth decay. But some natural springs and groundwater can contain naturally high levels of fluoride. This explains the use of fluoride in dentistry and why many countries turn to water fluoridation in improving the dental health in their communities.
The Enemy: Tooth Decay
Tooth decay, also known as dental caries, is a major but otherwise preventable health concern worldwide.
Decay happens when the acids produced by bacteria in dental plaque damage tooth tissue. Dental plaque refers to the sticky film that forms on the teeth as a result of the tooth surface’s contact with food and beverage. The bacteria present in plaque produce acid that attacks the teeth.
People with sweet tooth are prone to “acid attacks” that may lead to tooth decay. This may progress into cavities or holes in the teeth as well as infection. In severe cases, infected teeth may require extraction.
Water Fluoridation: A Review
Water fluoridation refers to the process of adjusting of fluoride to a recommended level for preventing tooth decay. The fluorination process is similar to fortifying other food and beverage products, like fortifying milk with vitamin D, orange juice with calcium, salt with iodine, and bread with folic acid.
The U.S. Public Health Service requires that drinking water must contain 0.7 parts per million to support good health. The task of monitoring the levels of fluoride currently contained in tap water and adjusting it when necessary falls on local water providers.
Understanding Fluoride Benefits for the Teeth
For almost 70 years, fluoride has been recognized as an important defense against dental problems, specifically tooth decay. Several studies reveal that fluoride is likely to reduce the incidence of decay by at least 20%.
About two-thirds of public water supplies all over the globe are treated with fluoride to reduce the incidence of dental caries in populations. Research says that the cost per person of fluoridating the water supply may result in $38 of savings in dental treatments.
But how does fluoride strengthen the teeth? For baby teeth that are still forming, fluoride ingested through water and food becomes part of the structure of the milk teeth, which are repeatedly covered in systemic fluoride through their saliva. By ingesting fluorinated water and using other sources of fluoride such as toothpaste, lozenges, and dental applications, children will develop stronger and more decay-resistant teeth.
The link between fluoride and tooth enamel is apparent. In both adults and children, fluoride controls decay by restoring lost minerals on the tooth’s surface (enamel). Cavities are caused by the loss of minerals on the enamel. When fluoride is present on the enamel, it can repair itself or “remineralize” decay at its early stages. Ongoing use of fluoridated water assists in the restoration of the tooth’s structure.
Is fluoride safe?
Some people are apprehensive about consuming fluoridated water, citing reports that indicate possible health risks ranging from reproductive and neurological damage to cancer.
The American Dental Association (ADA) reminds everyone to be wary of giving credence to such reports and to place importance on looking into the scientific validity of the methods used by the study. The ADA maintains that scientific scrutiny has so far validated none of the health risks suggested by opponents of fluoridation.
It has been noted, however, that a condition called dental fluorosis tends to occur if a child’s developing teeth are exposed to excessive amounts of fluoride. Mild dental fluorosis is characterized by flecks of white or very fine pearly white on the teeth’s surface. Severe fluorosis, meanwhile, may cause pitting or discoloration on the tooth’s enamel.
With the guidelines set by the U.S. Public Health Service and close monitoring of fluoride levels in water by local water providers, it’s unlikely for fluorosis to be severe enough to significantly affect the teeth’s appearance or general health.
The Fight for Fluoride
The weight of evidence that supports the effectiveness, safety, and benefits of water fluoridation is overwhelming. Yet, there remains to be a concern that fluoride may be linked to various health conditions. So far, reviews have returned with no convincing evidence to support these concerns.
On the contrary, ending water fluoridation can mean depriving more than 214 million people – that’s three in every four Americans – of the decay-preventing benefit of fluoridation.