WASHINGTON – When Cumberland and Frostburg added fluoride to their water systems this past year, members of the Pure Water Committee of Western Maryland Inc. turned to bottled water in an effort to avoid the chemical.
But health experts said it is nearly impossible to avoid fluoride, which is often added to processed foods or beverages if they were packaged in areas where the water is fluoridated.
Which is one reason that health officials, who have been touting the dental benefits of fluoride for decades, are not too worried about the growing trend toward bottled drinking water.
“While the switch to bottled water is somewhat of an issue, it’s not that big a factor,” said Dr. Harry Goodman, director of oral health at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Even some bottled waters contain fluoride — a fact that is often advertised on the bottle’s labeling.
“Some consumers don’t want fluoride in their water,” said Stephen Kay, vice president of communications for the International Bottled Water Association. “That’s the whole bottom line of bottled water — to provide consumers with the choice.”
Gary Hemphill, senior vice president of Beverage Marketing Corp., a research and consulting firm, said bottled water is the fastest growing major beverage market, increasing by 8 to 10 percent every year for the past decade.
IBWA represents companies that produce more than 500 brands, or about 80 percent of the bottled water sold in the United States and abroad. About 20 of its members produce water with naturally occurring or added levels of fluoride, said Kay. He said products that contain a dietary-significant level of fluoride must be labeled.
Hemphill said the fluoridated bottled water market is “pretty small” and “mostly geared toward kids’ products.”
Kay said an IBWA study last summer concluded that 63 percent of Americans drink bottled water, but he could not say how many drink it exclusively.
Those who think they can avoid fluoride by filtering their tap water are probably still getting some of the chemical in their water. Brita pitchers, for example, only filter out “negligible amounts” of fluoride in the first or second pitcher full, which the instructions say to discard anyway, said Mary O’Connell, a spokeswoman for Clorox Co., which makes the pitchers in the United States.
Health officials continue to insist that fluoride, in small amounts, poses no health risks while significantly reducing tooth decay.
“It’s done amazing things,” Goodman said. “It’s cost effective, it’s safe and it really has dramatically reduced the incidence of tooth decay.”
Dr. Martha Ann Keels, a pediatric dentist at Duke University, worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to review an August report for the American Academy of Pediatrics that reaffirmed the benefits of fluoride. She agreed with Goodman.
“It’s the safest, most effective means of cavity prevention,” Keels said. “It’s crazy not to do something so simple that has been shown to be benign again and again.”
Keels said people who do not want to ingest fluoride can choose not to drink tap water, but they should not try force their decision on others, particularly children who need the fluoride for their developing teeth.
“If you don’t want to do it, don’t,” Keels said. “Drink bottled water.”