Well Being

Fight Against Fluoride: Did You Brush With Poison Today?

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photo: Thinkstock

My first brush with dental care involved a stand-up Crest Kids bottle with a star-shaped dispenser. And I've been a Crest loyalist ever since then — up until a few weeks ago. Which means that more than 20,000 times over the course of my life, I’ve willingly put a chemical inside my mouth that many people consider toxic. That's right, I’m talking about fluoride.

Claims supporting fluoride have always been strong. By 1952, enough studies had shown a link between fluoride and reduced tooth decay, that the U.S. Public Health Service started adding it to community water supplies. And it wasn’t long before commercial toothpastes like my beloved Crest followed suit. Today, the American Dental Association (ADA) says: “Community water fluoridation is the single most effective public health measure to prevent tooth decay.” Pretty bold statement.

Like any scientific innovation, fluoride comes with a few good conspiracy theories. According to research commissioned by the The Christian Science Monitor in 1997, fluoride is the main ingredient in atom bombs. Supposedly, censored government documents from the Cold War era were found that exposed fluoride as a major health hazard. And not just for the scientists working on the bomb, either — but also for the communities where the research was done. There’s also the theory that water fluoridation was a plot designed to bring communism to the United States. So, you total nut-jobs, take your pick. There are plenty of conspiracy theories to go around.

But today there are more legitimate arguments against fluoride. In fact, when I asked Dr. Bruno Sharp (the Miami-based dentist behind Dr. Sharp Fluoride-Free toothpastes) about the risks of fluoride, his facts and figures came straight from the Department of Health and Human Services. First, overexposure to fluoride can be toxic. The chemical has also been associated with cancer, bone fractures, osteoporosis, and dental fluorosis, which is when your enamel crumbles and your teeth decay, leading to unsightly brown spots. According to Dr. Sharp (and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta), 32% of American children have some form of dental fluorosis. That’s a lot of closed-mouth yearbook photos.

Once I realized how many times I could have (theoretically) poisoned myself as a child, I became concerned. So I emailed the Fluoride Action Network (FAN) to find out why they lobby so hard against the F-word. If Dr. Sharp had made me nervous, FAN had me feverishly trying to remember if I'd ever swallowed any toothpaste in my life. Because if I had, apparently it could've caused skeletal fluorosis or bone fractures. The Lancet, a leading medical journal, even describes fluoride as an “emerging neurotoxic substance” because there's evidence linking it to lower IQs in kids, and brain damage in animals. In addition, it’s considered an endocrine disruptor, which means it could mess with your thyroid.

Crumbling enamel? Brain damage? Could the alleged side effects of fluoride possibly be any worse? Well, as a matter of fact, yes. Have you ever thought it strange that toothpastes come with warning labels? Oddly enough, neither have I. (This from someone who accidentally took two Singulairs in one day and spent hours Googling to see if she’d just OD'd.) But these labels simply advise contacting Poison Control if a kid younger than six ingests: “more [toothpaste] than used for brushing.” Dr. Joseph Mercola, a natural health expert and founder of the Optimal Wellness Center in Chicago, claims that the fluoride in half a tube of toothpaste is enough to kill a small child. Yike. Yet another reason not to brush with fluoride. Or have kids.

So I had a choice to make: Either poison myself twice a day, or watch my teeth rot. Fortunately, there are plenty of fluoride-free toothpastes on the market that claim to be just as effective as their fluoridated cousins. According to FAN, fluoride-free pastes usually contain the same inactive ingredients as fluoridated toothpastes in order to prevent plaque and keep mouths in good general health.

Unfortunately, not all fluoride-free pastes are created equal. But Dr. Sharp’s is also free of alcohol, parabens, and sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS). Plus, it’s vegan, and contains natural antiseptic and antibacterial ingredients that allegedly keep your mouth squeaky clean. Sure, the guy is touting his own toothpaste, but SLS and parabens are potential carcinogens. I avoid them in my beauty products, so why not also cut them out of my toothpaste? Tom’s of Maine, Natures’s Gate, and The Natural Dentist all manufacture toothpastes that also live up to these high health standards. (Of course, they're all much more expensive than regular fluoride toothpastes.)

And there’s one important logical question: Is the ADA trying to poison us? Before I put on my tinfoil hat, the ADA maintains that 65 years worth of studies prove that fluoridation of water and toothpaste is safe, effective, and cheap. They dismiss claims of health hazards as “junk science,” and say that the average person’s fluoride intake doesn’t pose a significant health risk. Aside from a secret commie takeover, I can't think of a logical reason why the ADA would want to harm the general public. (Unless they're feeling pressure from the toothpaste lobby.) Regardless, I'm going to err on the side of caution and put my money where my mouth is, and vice versa.

Considering ditching the fluoride? Your boycott doesn’t have to be limited to toothpaste. Head to the International Academy of Oral Medicine and Technology to find a fluoride-free dentist in your area. And for the fluoride you drink daily? Invest in a water filter for your kitchen tap, and fill up your bottles there.

Is it safe to say that now I’m scared to death of my toothpaste and tap water? Yes…yes, it is. But the situation isn’t all bad. It’s actually the perfect outlet for my chronic hypochondria. Just think: Something else to warn the relatives about at Thanksgiving! While my new Dr. Sharp toothpaste isn’t as blue or minty-fresh as my ousted brand, I’m learning to appreciate its subtleties. And, as difficult as it was to abandon the Crest of my childhood in favor of something a bit more grown-up, I'm trying. Now I just need to find a fluoride-free toothpaste with a star-shaped dispenser.