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As bans spread, fluoride in drinking water divides communities across the US

Melba Newsome, KFF Health News on

Published in News & Features

MONROE, N.C. — Regina Barrett, a 69-year-old retiree who lives in this small North Carolina city southeast of Charlotte, has not been happy with her tap water for a while.

“Our water has been cloudy and bubbly and looks milky,” said Barrett, who blames fluoride, a mineral that communities across the nation have for decades added to the water supply to help prevent cavities and improve dental health.

“I don’t want fluoride in my nothing!” said Barrett, echoing a growing number of people who not only doubt the mineral’s effectiveness but also believe it may be harmful despite decades of data pointing to public health and economic benefits.

In February, the Board of County Commissioners in Union County, whose seat is Monroe, voted 3-2 to stop adding fluoride to drinking water at the Yadkin River Water Treatment Plant, the only water source wholly owned and operated by the county. But the decision came after heated discussions among residents and county officials.

“My children had the blessing of growing up with fluoride in their water and … they have very little dental issues,” said Commissioner Richard Helms ahead of the vote. A fellow commissioner saw it differently: “Let’s stop putting something in the water that’s meant to treat us, and give people the freedom to choose,” said David Williams.

Barrett’s water comes from the city of Monroe, not the Yadkin facility. So, for now, she will continue to drink water enhanced with fluoride. “I’m suspicious as to why they add that to our water,” she told KFF Health News.


It is a scenario playing out nationwide. From Oregon to Pennsylvania, hundreds of communities have in recent years either stopped adding fluoride to their water supplies or voted to prevent its addition. Supporters of such bans argue that people should be given the freedom of choice. The broad availability of over-the-counter dental products containing the mineral makes it no longer necessary to add to public water supplies, they say. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that while store-bought products reduce tooth decay, the greatest protection comes when they are used in combination with water fluoridation.

The outcome of an ongoing federal case in California could force the Environmental Protection Agency to create a rule regulating or banning the use of fluoride in drinking water nationwide. In the meantime, the trend is raising alarm bells for public health researchers who worry that, much like vaccines, fluoride may have become a victim of its own success.

The CDC maintains that community water fluoridation is not only safe and effective but also yields significant cost savings in dental treatment. Public health officials say removing fluoride could be particularly harmful to low-income families — for whom drinking water may be the only source of preventive dental care.

“If you have to go out and get care on your own, it’s a whole different ballgame,” said Myron Allukian Jr., a dentist and past president of the American Public Health Association. Millions of people have lived with fluoridated water for years, “and we’ve had no major health problems,” he said. “It’s much easier to prevent a disease than to treat it.”


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©2024 KFF Health News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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