Sunday, March 6, 2011

A New Relationship with Fluoride? It's Complicated

The Centers for Disease Control lists Fluoridation of drinking water as one of the Ten Great Public Health Achievements of the last century.

It’s a new century, and as you might have guessed with a topic as controversial as fluoride, there are a few new cracks in the enamel of that distinction.

And these are worth taking a look at, especially if you have kids who regularly drink water and eat food.

First, when it comes to water, the Department of Health and Human Services and Environmental Protection Agency announced this January that for the first time in decades the amount of fluoride in drinking water should be lowered from a range of 0.7-1.2 milligrams per liter to a standard 0.7 milligrams per liter.

Second, days after the announcement on water, the EPA said it had “re-evaluated the current science on fluoride and is taking steps to begin a phase-down withdrawal of the pesticide sulfuryl fluoride, a pesticide that breaks down into fluoride and is commonly used in food storage and processing facilities.”

The problem with too much fluoride? According to a story on CNN.COM, the Department of Health and Human Services, the EPA and the American Dental Association say it can lead to mild Dental Fluorosis, a lacy white marking or spot on the enamel of teeth. Americans are getting more fluoride than they were when the fluoridation levels were established more than five decades ago, in part because fluoride is now in toothpaste, mouth rinses, supplements and even food.

Yes, food, which relates to the EPA decision on January 10 that the pesticide sulfuryl fluoride would be phased-down and eliminated.

Until I read it was being phased-down, I didn’t even know sulfuryl fluoride had been phased-in.

Known as the Dow AgroSciences fumigant ProFume, it was approved by the EPA in 2004 and 2005 for use in processing plants such as bakeries, bottlers, canneries, dairies, feed mills, fresh fruit packing and processing, meat processing, wineries, flour mills, egg processing, candy and confectionery plants, sugar processing, nut processing, cereal processing, and spice mills, to name a few.

It was a replacement to methyl bromide, targeted and banned because of its ozone-depleting properties. In fact, in 2007, instead of phasing down sulfuryl fluoride, the EPA was praising it, awarding Dow AgroSciences a “Partner in Ozone Protection” in the category of “new technologies in pest management.”

But the pesticide wasn’t popular with environmental groups. Several years ago, Fluoride Action Network, Environmental Working Group, and Beyond Pesticides combined their objections to the pesticide and submitted them as one document to the EPA. Their objections reached a peak this past January when, through the efforts of their pro bono lawyer, Perry Wallace, they were ready to take the case to court.

They didn’t have to.

For the first time in history, the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs updated its risks of sulfuryl fluoride based on the groups’ objections. The exposure to fluoride residue violated the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) safety standard which allows tolerances for pesticide residue only if “aggregate exposure to major subpopulations is “safe”” their press release says.

The subpopulation addressed in the EPA statement was identified as “infants and children under the age of 7 years old, where drinking water contains high levels of natural fluoride.” For this group, the aggregate exposure to fluoride was already considered so high the tolerances for sulfuryl fluoride in food, under the FFDCA, could not be permitted.

The EPA looked at the aggregate exposure to fluoride, especially in kids—something the three groups fighting to end the use of sulfuryl fluoride had wanted.

But when it comes to acute exposure, it’s complicated.

I emailed Chris Neurath the research director at Fluoride Action Network to ask him to explain the tolerance for a food fumigant such as sulfuryl fluoride.

He told me a tolerance was “...the maximum level of a pesticide residue allowed on food items. It’s not the average level, and it is possible that very few batches of food will have any reside from the use of sulfuryl fluoride.” This is in part because food is not always in the facilities at the time of fumigation.

For most processed foods, he said, “probably no more than 1% of batches of most foods will have been fumigated. And perhaps only 5% of those 1% will end up with residues exceeding the EPA 70ppm tolerance.”

But what about that 1 in 2000 meals?

“If the food consumed is one that is a staple,” he says, “one could easily eat a large serving. 70ppm fluoride in a child’s serving of bread or pasta could be enough to cause acute fluoride poisoning.”

Neurath goes on to say that his definition of acute is not the EPA’s definition. He’s talking about the symptoms such as “feeling sick to the stomach or vomiting.”

It’s important to note that Fluoride Action Network was not founded solely out of an abundance of concern for dental fluorosis. As most people know, the debate over water fluoridation has been long-running, and even the Health and Human Services and EPA announcement on lowering the levels in water and proposed removal of sulfuryl fluoride does not put to rest the arguments from researchers such as Neurath who look beyond dental fluorisis to other concerns that include, “bone cancer, thyroid effect and bone fracture.”

I am no scientist.

Most parents are not.

So the question is: How does this case fall into the larger picture of issues related to our children’s safety that often get muddied by political chess playing?

For one thing, the groups that have fought for a better look at excessive fluoride exposure have called the HHS and EPA announcements a victory.

As you might expect, there’s a twist.

The water and pesticide moves were prompted in part by the 2006 report by the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academies of Science (NAS) which suggested the EPA “update its fluoride risk assessment to include new data on health risks and better estimates of total exposure.”

When the EPA and HHS recommended a lower level of water fluoridation to bring down total levels of exposure it created a window for Dow AgroSciences.

Dow AgroSciences may argue the population will be exposed to less fluoride. Considering sulfuryl fluoride accounts for only 3% of aggregate exposure, there could be room in such a case to grant a tolerance for it, without pushing total exposure past what is deemed safe.

Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) the Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works who recently introduced a bill that would strip the EPA’s authority to apply the Clean Air Act to carbon dioxide, has likewise taken on the EPA’s proposal on sulfuryl fluoride. In a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, he said it could create “unintended consequences for public health, food safety and the economy.” And he’d like to look into the EPA’s decision and “supporting scientific rationale.”

Neurath says his group had been trying to get a hearing with the EPA--to discuss aggregate and acute fluoride exposure-- for almost ten years.

Thanks to Dow AgroSciences and Senator Inhofe, they might finally get one.

I said it was complicated.

Now if only Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin were here to make me feel better about feeling so confused.


Anonymous said...

So I guess there really WAS something to General Ripper's advice: drink only distilled water (or rain water) and only pure grain alcohol.

Tim Morrissey said...

Excellent post and great research, Sarah. This is another one of those issues parents should be aware of, but probably aren't.

parenting ad absurdum said...

I had no idea about this, Sarah - I appreciate your thoughtful and balanced research!

Judee said...

I have always known that flouride in our drinking water could be a concern. Great research and kudos for bringing an important issue to light.

Megan said...

Thanks so much! I knew it was excessive in water, but I had no idea about food. Is this not something they have to declare by food packaging regulations?

Lunch Box Mom said...

That's a good question, Megan. I am not aware that they are. I have never seen a listing for pesticide residues on any form of food, but there is a list of "tolerances" online that shows what the EPA allows on each kind of processed food. The researcher at FAN said that organic foods generally are better options if this is something you're trying to avoid.