Water Fluoridation Impacts the Environment
Fluoride pollution from aluminum smelters has long been known to cause problems such as damage to plants and risk to livestock grazing grasses exposed to the chemical. But there are not many highly publicized studies that look at the ecological impact of fluoridating municipal water supplies. Past research, however, shows that the practice hailed by the CDC as one of the greatest public health advances of the 20th century for humans may be causing damage to the environment.
An excerpt from a research review by Edward Groth III, a former staff member of the Environmental Studies Board of the National Research Council, sets the stage:
“To date, except for instances of gross spillage of fluoride into the air or water, fluoride has received relatively little attention as a contaminant of the ecosystem. In the case of water pollution especially, there have been many other pollutants which have been present in massive amounts, and which have had a very significant impact. It is easy to understand how a pollutant like fluoride, which is usually present at fairly low levels, and which has more subtle, insidious effects, when it has effects at all, has been given relatively low priority, both in terms of research attention and regulatory control. It is possible that fluoride may have had some adverse effects on aquatic life, but that such damage has been masked by the far more severe effects of untreated sewage, industrial effluents, pesticides, and other major pollutants. As controls on these more easily recognized pollution problems are becoming more effective and widespread, attention can turn to less prominent pollutants such as fluoride, whose impacts may be more easily detected as water quality improves in respect to other parameters.”
At the Source
Ninety percent of artificially fluoridated water supplies in the U.S. do not purchase pharmaceutical grade fluoride but instead purchase fluosilicic acid, a waste product mainly of the phosphate fertilizer industry.
The fluosilicic acid is extracted from wet scrubbers, according to Michael Connett, Research Director of the Fluoride Action Network, an international coalition of scientists, medical professionals, environmentalists, and others working for fluoride awareness. Connett describes wet scrubbers as pollution management tools that were devised to capture the fluoride gases produced during phosphate fertilizer production. The designated hazardous waste, which is too toxic to be dumped in rivers or soil, is recovered from the scrubbers, packaged unrefined, and sent out to municipalities across the U.S. ready to be applied to local drinking water.
In a Canadian Broadcasting Company piece from 1967 called “Air of Death,” the severe toxicity of the waste from the fertilizer industry and the need for pollution control is clear.
“Farmers noticed it first… Something mysterious burned the peppers, burned the fruit, dwarfed and shriveled the grains, damaged everything that grew. Something in the air destroyed the crops. Anyone could see it… They noticed it first in 1961. Again in ‘62. Worse each year. Plants that didn’t burn, were dwarfed. Grain yields cut in half…Finally, a greater disaster revealed the source of the trouble. A plume from a silver stack, once the symbol of Dunville’s progress, spreading for miles around poison – fluorine. It was identified by veterinarians. There was no doubt. What happened to the cattle was unmistakable, and it broke the farmers’ hearts. Fluorosis – swollen joints, falling teeth, pain until cattle lie down and die. Hundreds of them. The cause – fluorine poisoning from the air.”
Following incidents such as the one detailed above, the phosphate fertilizer industry has drastically cleaned up in large part due to stringent Environmental Protection Agency regulations. And large amounts of fluoride are no longer finding their way into our air, water, and soil. Much smaller amounts of fluoride from the phosphate fertilizer industry, however, are still finding their way into the environment and stricter limits on these lower levels of the waste have yet to be set.
Industrial Waste in the Water
The risk to the environment from fluoride comes as the sewage effluent from municipalities enters rivers and streams after processing.
Groth, who has a PhD in biological sciences, says aside from some waste still coming from industry, another significant source of fluoride water pollution is domestic sewage.
In his 1975 review of the environmental impact of fluoride Groth explained that most of the fluoridated water used in urban areas is returned through sewage systems to the aquatic environment. Groth described a number of studies that related environmental fluoride concentrations to specific sources. One such study measured tributaries of the East Gallatin River above the town of Bozeman, Montana, as containing 0.1 ppm (parts per million) fluoride or less, while the river below the city’s sewage outfall (the only fluoride source in the area) was found to have concentrations of 0.3 to 0.8 ppm. This clearly illustrates that fluoride added to municipal water supplies finds its way to our rivers through our sewage systems and raises background levels of the chemical.
Groth also mentions a study of fluoride input to Narragansett Bay, in Rhode Island, which showed that “36 percent of the fluoride entering the bay was due to fluoridation of water supplies in five communities on rivers feeding into the estuary. In midsummer, pollution from these sources was enough to double the fluoride content of the rivers.”
In a 1994 research review, Impact of Artificial Fluoridation on Salmon Species in the Northwest USA and British Columbia, Canada, researchers Richard G. Foulkes and Anne C. Anderson reviewed the literature to find that concentrations of fluoride lower than 1.5 ppm, the level “permissible” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has both lethal and adverse effects on salmon.
The EPA allowed a “permissible level” of 1.5 ppm for fluoride discharged into fresh water. But the researchers suggest a level of 0.2 ppm is required to remove the risk to aquatic species. British Columbia’s “recommended guideline” is actually 0.2 ppm, but it does not have legislation to back it up.
The research review covers a field study, which demonstrated that relatively low level fluoride contamination from an aluminum smelter 1.6 km above the John Day Dam caused inhibition of migration in the salmon, which led to high salmon loss at on the Columbia River from 1982-1986. In 1982, the average daily discharge of fluoride caused a fluoride concentration of 0.5 ppm at the dam and a migration time of more than 150 hours leading to a 55% loss of the salmon. In 1983, the concentration was reduced to 0.17 ppm and the migration time to less than 28 hours with a loss of 11%. In 1985, the concentration was 0.2 ppm with a salmon loss of 5%. This study clearly shows that even lower levels of fluoride, the same levels that are discharged from artificial fluoridation of municipal water supplies, can cause a large loss of the salmon population
Other studies reviewed by Foulkes and Anderson support the findings that fluoride levels below 1.5 ppm have lethal and other adverse effects on aquatic species. One study shows delayed hatching of rainbow trout at 1.5 ppm; another shows brown mussels died at 1.4 ppm; yet another shows that levels below 0.1 ppm were lethal to the water flea.
The researchers argue that these studies provide evidence that the “safe” level of fluoride in the fresh water habitat of salmon species is not 1.5 ppm but, 0.2 ppm. They also make the point that the decline in salmon stocks, especially Chinook and Coho, is a major economic problem for both commercial and sport fisheries and that fluoride pollution, even at relatively low levels, plays a role in this problem. The researchers argue that “until evidence to the contrary based on impartially, conducted field studies, is available, the “critical level” of fluoride, in fresh water, to protect salmon species in the US Northwest and British Columbia, should be 0.2 ppm.” They say this would require, among other actions, the cessation of deliberate metering of fluoride waste into community water supplies.