Pregnant? Researchers want you to know something about fluoride

Karen Kaplan, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Women

LOS ANGELES -- Adding fluoride to drinking water is widely considered a triumph of public health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the cavity-prevention strategy ranks alongside the development of vaccines and the recognition of tobacco's dangers as signal achievements of the 20th century.

But new evidence from Los Angeles mothers and their preschool-age children suggests community water fluoridation may have a downside.

A study published in JAMA Network Open links prenatal exposure to the mineral with an increased risk of neurobehavioral problems at age 3, including symptoms that characterize autism spectrum disorder. The association was seen among women who consumed fluoride in amounts that are considered typical in Los Angeles and across the country.

The findings do not show that drinking fluoridated water causes autism or any other behavioral conditions. Nor is it clear whether the relationship between fluoride exposure and the problems seen in the L.A.-area children — a cohort that is predominantly low-income and 80% Latino — would extend to other demographic groups.

However, the results are concerning enough that USC epidemiologist Tracy Bastain said she would advise pregnant people to avoid fluoridated water straight from the tap and drink filtered water instead.

"This exposure can impact the developing fetus," said Bastain, the study's senior author. "Eliminating that from drinking water is probably a good practice."


About 63% of Americans receive fluoridated water through their taps, including 73% of those served by community water systems, according to the CDC. In Los Angeles County, 62% of residents get fluoridated water, the Department of Public Health says.

The data analyzed by Bastain and her colleagues came from participants in an ongoing USC research project called Maternal and Developmental Risks from Environmental and Social Stressors, or MADRES. Women receiving prenatal care from clinics in Central and South Los Angeles that cater to low-income patients with Medi-Cal insurance were invited to join.

Between 2017 and 2020, 229 mothers took a test to measure the concentration of fluoride in their urine during their third trimester of pregnancy. Then, between 2020 and 2023, they completed a 99-question survey to assess their child's behavior when their sons and daughters were 3 years old.

Among other things, the survey asked mothers whether their children were restless, hyperactive, impatient, clingy or accident-prone. It also asked about specific behaviors, such as resisting bedtime or sleeping alone, chewing on things that aren't edible, holding their breath, and being overly concerned with neatness or cleanliness.


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