Fluoride refers to a derivative or reduced form of the element fluorine. Fluorine exists in the earth’s crust, rocks, clay and coal. Plants, air, fresh water and ocean water containfluorine. In the United States, bodies of water have fluorine ranges from 0.1 to 12 parts per (ppm). Public health officials have added fluoride to municipal water supplies since the 1940s.
Many researchers promote the benefits of fluoride, especially in children’s formative years, for the development of strong bones and teeth. On the other end of the scale, excessive fluorine intake may cause dental fluorosis, which is pitted teeth and decay. “If it is absorbed too frequently, it can cause tooth decay, osteoporosis, and damage to kidneys, bones, nerves, and muscles (1, 2, 9).”
Many studies point to the effectiveness of fluoride for maintaining healthy bone strength and teeth. Often, water fluoridation receives credit as the single most important factor, accounting for the 40 to 70 percent reduction in tooth decay among Americans (1, 2).
The History of Fluorine
Fluorine in mining. Fluorite or fluorspar contains fluoride in its natural form. Generally, fluoride compounds derive from fluorspar. Structurally, fluorine has the most stable structure of all the chemical compounds. German miners used fluorspar as a flux or solvent in ore smelting mining. The compound enables miners to use less heat to melt the ore.
Fluorine in etched glass. Artisans discovered that by adding acid to fluorspar they could create a chemical reaction which etched glass. In 1771, the Swedish apothecary Carl Wilhelm Scheele conducted research into the chemical nature of fluorine gas to water and found it created a silica residue. Treating the fluorspar with phosphoric acid resulted in a residue similar to the mineral aspects of bones.
In 1886, the French chemist Henri Moissan became the first researcher to isolate fluorine. His method entailed electrolyzing anhydrous hydrogen fluoride, as it dissolved, in a platinum container fill with acid potassium fluoride. The nonmetallic element fluorine consists of a pale-yellowish gas, which blends with many different elements. Fluorine combines indirectly with chlorine, nitrogen and oxygen.
Although it is rarely used as a free element, fluorine mixes with all compounds, except helium and neon. This characteristic makes a wide variety of fluorine-based compounds possible (3).
Modern Fluoride Research
Weinstein writes, “The link between fluoride and dental care was made in the 19th century, and as early as the 1800s when fluoride pastilles were advertised for the preservation of teeth (1)”. The beginning of modern fluoride research began in 1901, when dentist Frederick McKay moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado to open a dental practice. He soon discovered many Colorado Springs natives had pitted teeth and had severe cases of brown stains on their teeth. The condition was known locally as “Colorado Brown Stain”.
McKay tried for years to pinpoint the source of both conditions. His break came in 1909, when well-known dental researcher Dr. G.V. Black arrived in Colorado Springs for a conference and decided to collaborate with McKay to identify the source of “Colorado Brown Stain”.
By the time of Black’s death in 1915, the two researchers determined the pitted condition called “mottled enamel,” came from development issues with children’s teeth. They also determined that the teeth of individuals who had “Colorado Brown Stain” were resistant to decay. McKay continued his research for years.
In the mid-1920s, McKay made a trip to Arkansas to investigate brown staining cases in the state. While investigating children with the condition, he discovered that brown stain cases did not exist in a town just five miles away.
McKay subsequently narrowed the root cause of the brown staining condition down to the high fluoride level found in the water supply (5).
Public Water Fluoridation
In 1931, the head of the Dental Hygiene Unit at the National Institute of Health (NIH), Dr. H. Trendley Dean, initiated the first nationwide fluoride studies. Dean worked with a senior NIH chemist to develop a fluoride testing method. The test had accuracy within 0.1 ppm. Testing conducted across the country revealed that most of the population did not have problems with fluorosis, and a small percentage of people had only mild fluorosis.
Dean later hypothesized, by adding fluoride to drinking water, at safe levels, the fluoride could provide a powerful remedy for tooth decay. In 1945, Rapids City Michigan became the first state to add fluoride to the public water system. Over the next 11 years, researchers monitored and measured children born after implementation of the water fluoridation policy. They recorded a 60 percent drop in cavities among the children (5).
Over the next 50 years, public health authorities in towns and cities across the country have designated an optimal range of 0.7 ppm to 1.2 ppm for public water supplies. The United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulate this water quality and fluoridation. On January 2011, the HHS announced its decision to adjust the “optimal level” to 0.7 ppm because of an increase in the number of American children experiencing mild forms of dental fluorosis (6).
A wide variety of industries count on fluorides in their manufacturing processes including: food, drugs, plastics, petrochemicals, paints and explosives. Also, a number of specialized products contain hydrofluoric acid which depends on fluoride. Fluorine compounds create chlorofluorocarbon for products like refrigerants or the dispersant agent for aerosol products. Until 1995, the United States and most European nations banned chlorofluorocarbons out of concern for the environment.
Another fluoride-based product, Teflon, has significant value as a plastic because it resists chemical action. The automotive industry utilizes Teflon as the primary material for gaskets and dashboards. Teflon also eliminates the need for fat when cooking because it serves as the coating for Teflon frying pans and other kitchen cookware.
Optical glass manufacturers use potassium fluoride for their process. Atomic power plants utilize uranium hexafluoride in its operations. In the pharmaceutical industry, drugs contain fluorine, such as antipsychotics, antibiotics, anesthetics and HIV protease inhibitors. Fluorine slows the drug’s biochemical modification or metabolism (7).
Topical fluoride has gained acceptance as the most important source of tooth decay prevention. Dental professionals apply fluoride treatments directly to teeth surfaces. Research shows topical fluoride as most effective when delivered at low dosages to patients. Most toothpaste products contain fluoride and are the most common delivery method for topical fluoride. Increasingly, dental professionals use fluoride treatments in the form of varnishes, gels and foam to enhance remineralization of teeth enamel (9, 12).
Fluoridation of public water supplies has the support of a coalition of government, industry and health organizations. The American Dental Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Medical Association and American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry defend the policy (7). Nonetheless, many groups argue that fluoridation presents risks and violates civil liberties because it amounts to forced medication (8, 9 10, 12).
TheraBreath has created a fluoride-free toothpaste for patients with concerns about possible over exposure to fluoride. Click here to view the TheraBreath Fluoride Free Toothpaste. Be sure to select the “non-fluoride” option when ordering.
Leonard H. Weinstein, Alan Davison “Fluorides in the environment: effects on plants and animals.” (page 68), 2004.
Singh KA, et al. “Relative effects of pre- and post-eruption water fluoride on caries experience by surface type of permanent first molars.”
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Maryland Department of health and Mental Hygeine. Community Water Fluoridation
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Pessan JP, et al. “Topical use of fluorides for caries control.”
José Gutiérrez-Salinas, et. al. “Exposure to Sodium Fluoride Produces Signs of Apoptosis in Rat Leukocytes.”
ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2956113/?tool=pubmed. Int J Mol Sci. 2010
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National Maternal and Child Oral Health Resource Center. “Topical Fluoride.” http://www.mchoralhealth.org/PediatricOH/mod4_2_3.htm