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As with some other countries water fluoridation in the United States is a contentious issue. As of May 2000, 42 of the 50 largest U.S. cities had water fluoridation. On January 25, 1945, Grand Rapids, Michigan became the first community in the United States to fluoridate its drinking water to prevent tooth decay.
Fluoridation became an official policy of the U.S. Public Health Service by 1951, and by 1960 water fluoridation had become widely used in the U.S., reaching about 50 million people. By 2006, 69.2% of the U.S. population on public water systems were receiving fluoridated water, amounting to 61.5% of the total U.S. population. As of 2012, 72% of the total U.S. population get their water from public systems that add fluoride.
U.S. regulations for bottled water do not require disclosing fluoride content. Surveys of bottled water in Cleveland and in Iowa found that most had fluoride levels well below the 1 mg/L level common in tap waters.
Community water fluoridation in the United States is partly due to the research of Dr. Frederick McKay, who pressed the dental community for an investigation into what was then known as "Colorado Brown Stain." The condition, now known as dental fluorosis, when in its severe form is characterized by cracking and pitting of the teeth. Of 2,945 children examined in 1909 by Dr. McKay, 87.5% had some degree of stain or mottling. All the affected children were from the Pikes Peak region. Despite the negative impact on the physical appearance of their teeth, the children with stained, mottled and pitted teeth also had fewer cavities than other children. McKay brought this to the attention of Greene Vardiman Black, and Black's interest was followed by greater interest within the dental profession.
Initial hypotheses for the staining included poor nutrition, overconsumption of pork or milk, radium exposure, childhood diseases, or a calcium deficiency in the local drinking water. In 1931, researchers from the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) concluded that the cause of the Colorado stain was a high concentration of fluoride ions in the region's drinking water (ranging from 2 to 13.7 mg/L) and areas with lower concentrations had no staining (1 mg/L or less). Pikes Peak's rock formations contained the mineral cryolite, one of whose constituents is fluorine. As the rain and snow fell, the resulting runoff water dissolved fluoride which made its way into the water supply.
Dental and aluminum researchers then moved toward determining a relatively safe level of fluoride chemicals to be added to water supplies. The research had two goals: (1) to warn communities with a high concentration of fluoride of the danger, initiating a reduction of the fluoride levels in order to reduce incidences of fluorosis, and (2) to encourage communities with a low concentration of fluoride in drinking water to add fluoride chemicals in order to help prevent tooth decay. By 2006, 69.2% of the U.S. population on public water systems were receiving fluoridated water, amounting to 61.5% of the total U.S. population; 3.0% of the population on public water systems were receiving naturally occurring fluoride.
A study of varying amounts of fluoride in water was led by Dr. H. Trendley Dean, a dental officer of the U.S. Public Health Service. In 1936 and 1937, Dr. Dean and other dentists compared statistics from Amarillo, which had 2.8 – 3.9 mg/L fluoride content, and low fluoride Wichita Falls. The data is alleged to show fewer cavities in Amarillo children, but the studies were never published. Dr. Dean's research on the fluoride-dental caries relationship, published in 1942, included 7,000 children from 21 cities in Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. The study concluded that the optimal amount of fluoride which minimized the risk of severe fluorosis but had positive benefits for tooth decay was 1 mg per day, per adult. Although fluoride is more abundant in the environment today, this was estimated to correlate with the concentration of 1 mg/L.
In 1937, dentists Henry Klein and Carroll E. Palmer had considered the possibility of fluoridation to prevent cavities after their evaluation of data gathered by a Public Health Service team at dental examinations of Native American children. In a series of papers published afterwards (1937–1941), yet disregarded by his colleagues within the U.S.P.H.S., Klein summarized his findings on tooth development in children and related problems in epidemiological investigations on caries prevalence.
In 1939, Dr. Gerald J. Cox conducted laboratory tests using rats that were fed aluminum and fluoride. Dr. Cox suggested adding fluoride to drinking water (or other media such as milk or bottled water) in order to improve oral health.
In the mid-1940s, four widely cited studies were conducted. The researchers investigated cities that had both fluoridated and unfluoridated water. The first pair was Muskegon, Michigan and Grand Rapids, Michigan, making Grand Rapids the first community in the world to add fluoride chemicals to its drinking water to try to benefit dental health on January 25, 1945. Kingston, New York was paired with Newburgh, New York. Oak Park, Illinois was paired with Evanston, Illinois. Sarnia, Ontario was paired with Brantford, Ontario, Canada.
In 1952 Nebraska Representative A.L. Miller complained that there had been no studies carried out to assess the potential adverse health risk to senior citizens, pregnant women or people with chronic diseases from exposure to the fluoridation chemicals. A decrease in the incidence of tooth decay was found in some of the cities which had added fluoride chemicals to water supplies. The early comparison studies would later be criticized as, "primitive," with a, "virtual absence of quantitative, statistical methods...nonrandom method of selecting data and...high sensitivity of the results to the way in which the study populations were grouped..." in the journal Nature.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has identified community water fluoridation as one of ten great public health achievements of the 20th century. The CDC recommends water fluoridation at a level of 0.7–1.2 mg/L, depending on climate. The CDC also advises parents to monitor use of fluoride toothpaste, and use of water with fluoride concentrations above 2 mg/L, in children up to age 8. There is a CDC database for researching the water fluoridation status of neighborhood water.
In 1998, 70% of people polled in a survey conducted by the American Dental Association (ADA) believed community water should be fluoridated, with 18% disagreeing and the rest undecided. In November 2006, the ADA began recommending to parents that infants from 0 through 12 months of age should have their formula prepared with water that is fluoride-free or contains low levels of fluoride to reduce the risk of fluorosis.
The issue of whether or not to fluoridate water supplies frequently arises in local governments. For example, on November 8, 2005, citizens of Mt. Pleasant, Michigan voted 63% to 37% in favor of reinstating fluoridation in public drinking water after a 2004 ballot initiative ceased water fluoridation in the city. At the same time, voters in Xenia, Ohio; Springfield, Ohio; Bellingham, Washington; and Tooele City, Utah all rejected water fluoridation.
In Skagit County in the state of Washington, the county commissioners in 2007 voted 2 to 1 to order the local public utility district to begin fluoridating the public water supply by Jan. 2009. $1.2 million was to be provided by the privately funded Washington Dental Service Foundation to begin building the equipment needed to add fluoride chemicals to the Judy Reservoir, which supplies the majority of Skagit Valley's water customers. The source and type of fluoride to be added to the drinking water of more than 70,000 citizens had not been disclosed. However, in February 2009, Skagit County commissioners rescinded the 2007 order, citing costs and possible lawsuits.
The cost of adding fluoridation chemicals to the water of 44 Florida communities has been researched by the State Health Office in Tallahassee. In communities with a population of over 50,000 people, fluoridation costs were estimated at 31 cents per person per year. The estimated cost rises to $2.12 per person in areas with a population below 10,000. Unintended consequences, such as equipment malfunction, can substantially raise the financial burden, as well as the health risks, to the consumer.
In the U.S., Hispanic and Latino Americans are significantly more likely to consume bottled instead of tap water, and the use of bottled and filtered water grew dramatically in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Fluoridation has been the subject of many court cases wherein activists have sued municipalities, asserting that their rights to consent to medical treatment and due process are infringed by mandatory water fluoridation. Individuals have sued municipalities for a number of illnesses that they believe were caused by fluoridation of the city's water supply. In most of these cases, the courts have held in favor of cities, finding no or only a tenuous connection between health problems and widespread water fluoridation. To date, no federal appellate court or state court of last resort (i.e., state supreme court) has found water fluoridation to be unlawful.
A flurry of cases were heard in numerous state courts across the U.S. in the 1950s during the early years of water fluoridation. State courts consistently held in favor of allowing fluoridation to continue, analogizing fluoridation to mandatory vaccination and the use of other chemicals to clean the public water supply, both of which had a long-standing history of acceptance by courts.
In 1952, a Federal Regulation was adopted that stated in part, "The Federal Security Agency will regard water supplies containing fluorine, within the limitations recommended by the Public Health Service, as not actionable under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act."
The Supreme Court of Oklahoma analogized water fluoridation to mandatory vaccination in a 1954 case. The court noted, "we think the weight of well-reasoned modern precedent sustains the right of municipalities to adopt such reasonable and undiscriminating measures to improve their water supplies as are necessary to protect and improve the public health, even though no epidemic is imminent and no contagious disease or virus is directly involved .... To us it seems ridiculous and of no consequence in considering the public health phase of the case that the substance to be added to the water may be classed as a mineral rather than a drug, antiseptic or germ killer; just as it is of little, if any, consequence whether fluoridation accomplishes its beneficial result to the public health by killing germs in the water, or by hardening the teeth or building up immunity in them to the bacteria that causes caries or tooth decay. If the latter, there can be no distinction on principle between it and compulsory vaccination or inoculation, which, for many years, has been well-established as a valid exercise of police power."
In the 1955 case Froncek v. City of Milwaukee, the Wisconsin Supreme Court affirmed the ruling of a circuit court which held that "the fluoridation is not the practice of medicine, dentistry, or pharmacy, by the City" and that "the legislation is a public health measure, bearing a real, substantial, and reasonable relation to the health of the city."
The Supreme Court of Ohio, in 1955's Kraus v. City of Cleveland, said, "Plaintiff's argument that fluoridation constitutes mass medication, the unlawful practice of medicine and adulteration may be answered as a whole. Clearly, the addition of fluorides to the water supply does not violate such principles any more than the chlorination of water, which has been held valid many times."
In 1973, as cases continued to be brought in state courts, a consensus developed that fluoridation, at least from a legal standpoint, was acceptable. In 1973's Beck v. City Council of Beverly Hills, the California Court of Appeal, Second District, said, "Courts through the United States have uniformly held that fluoridation of water is a reasonable and proper exercise of the police power in the interest of public health. The matter is no longer an open question."
Advocates continue to make contemporary challenges to the spread of fluoridation. For instance, in 2002, the city of Watsonville, California chose to disregard a California law mandating fluoridation of water systems with 10,000 or more hookups, and the dispute between the city and the state ended up in court. The trial court and the intermediate appellate court ruled in favor of the state and its fluoridation mandate, and the Supreme Court of California declined to hear the case in February 2006. Since 2000, courts in Washington, Maryland, and Texas have reached similar conclusions.
Another example occurred in 2011 when the Pinellas County, Florida commissioners voted to stop adding fluoride to the county's public drinking water. Tampa Bay Times editor Tim Nickens and columnist Daniel Ruth then published a joint series of ten editorials challenging the decision in 2012, and two of the commissioners who had voted to stop fluoridation were voted out of office and replaced with candidates who had pledged to add it back. In March 2013, after a 6-1 vote, the county resumed the addition of fluoride, which the Times characterized as being "long considered the most effective method to prevent tooth decay". Nickens and Ruth were awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing for their series.