Federal health officials says too much fluoride in drinking water causing health problem

Federal health officials said Friday they are recommending that the level of fluoride in drinking water be set at the lowest end of the current optimal range to prevent tooth decay. At the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency is initiating a review of the maximum amount of fluoride allowed in drinking water in hopes of minimizing unspecified “adverse health effects.”

The federal moves come as San Diego — the largest city in the nation without fluoridated water — prepares to add the compound to its water supply. That was supposed to happen in December, but city water officials said they needed more time to make sure that the system and staff were ready. San Diego has not publicized a new date.

A spokesman for the city's water department said Friday that it's too soon to say what effect the federal actions will have on local water supplies.

“The key words here for us is that the EPA is initiating a review. Once that review is done, they may set new fluoridation limits. If they do, we would act at that time in accordance with the new limits,” said spokesman Kurt Kidman.

He said the city's target for fluoride is 0.8 milligrams per liter, which is near the low end of the current range of 0.7 to 1.2 milligrams per liter that federal health officials say is optimal.

Fluoridating water has been controversial for decades. In the 1950s, San Diego residents voted in a special election to ban treatment of city water with “any fluoride compound.”

That wording remains, but the City Attorney's Office said it has been superseded by a 1995 state law requiring water providers with more than 10,000 connections to fluoridate water supplies. State law exempted public water systems from the mandate until “outside funding” was found.

Money came about three years ago from the First 5 Commission of San Diego, which spends tobacco-tax revenue on early-childhood programs. The commission has spent about $3.9 million to install a fluoridation system at the city's three water treatment plants.

Friday's announcement in Washington, D.C., is likely to stoke more debate about fluoride, which health officials maintain is a valuable tool to battle cavities. But questions about side-effects continue to haunt the compound, which opponents link to cancer, bone problems and other maladies.

“We've had to wait too long, but the government's announcement marks a belated recognition that many American children are at risk from excess fluoride in drinking water and other sources,” said Jane Houlihan, senior vice president for research at the Environmental Working Group. The nonprofit group has pushed for lower fluoride limits for years.

Federal health officials said water fluoridation and fluoride to toothpaste are largely responsible for a significant decline in tooth decay in the U.S. over the past several decades. Environmental officials alluded to the lingering questions about the dangers fluoride consumption.

“EPA's new analysis will help us make sure that people benefit from tooth decay prevention while at the same time avoiding the unwanted health effects from too much fluoride,” said Peter Silva, the agency's assistant administrator for water.

In explaining proposed controls, federal leaders said Americans have access to more sources of fluoride than they did when water fluoridation was first introduced in the United States in the 1940s. Besides water, common sources of fluoride include toothpaste and mouth rinses, prescription fluoride supplements, and fluoride applied by dental professionals.>

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