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Fluoride in its basic form is an inorganic chemical formula that is naturally available in the soil, water and foods. It comes from fluorine which is a highly abundant natural element. While fluoride has been used in small amounts in products such as toothpaste and mouthwash, even drinking water as it prevents tooth decay, a large amount of this element can cause health issues among the local population who drink this water containing a large amount of fluoride, an acute toxin.
Fluoride in Drinking Water
It’s strange and quite ironic that the same element used to prevent tooth decay can cause skeletal and dental fluorosis if the fluoride content of water or products being consumed is higher than 1.5 mg/liter. In rural India, the groundwater is flooded with fluoride, and regular consumption of just 2 mg/liter of this element can cause a range of health issues like osteoporosis, arthritis, brittle bones, tooth decay, Alzheimer’s and thyroid disorders.
If you travel to certain localities in rural India such as Beed district in Maharashtra or Fazilka and Jalalabad in Punjab, Rae Bareilly, and Sonbhadra in Uttar Pradesh and Nalgonda District in Andhra Pradesh, you will encounter a surprisingly large amount of child population having stained teeth.
Or you will find elders, barely above the age of 45 with crumpled shoulders and slouched backs. While this may seem like a living hazard, the root cause of these problems is in their daily consumption of water which has fluoride content way higher than what is considered safe (1.5mg/liter)
The areas affected by this problem span across approximately 100 districts in 20 of our states, where over 60 million people are believed to consume drinking water which has a fluoride content of more than 1.5mg/liter. This is not safe. It is hazardous and poses so many health threats to the rural population of our country.
Dental and skeletal fluorosis is a prevalent chronic condition caused due to the fluoride problem, but it’s not the only. Arthritis, brain damage and even infertility in women can be caused by this.
Health Effects (ill effects)
The two types of fluorosis that are a common result of the alarmingly high fluoride content, dental fluorosis and skeletal fluorosis, cause chronic damage to teeth and bones respectively. This results in finding toothless young children in villages and a sharp rise in the number of people that have ‘yellow teeth’.
It would be a mistake blaming this on the people’s lifestyle (on the tobacco consumed by villagers) because these symptoms are not restricted to only those who consume tobacco.
Little children in the age group of 1 to 4 years are most vulnerable as they do not have permanent teeth yet. Continuous exposure to a high concentration of fluoride during teeth development leads to dental fluorosis in these young children as it causes the formation of enamel with high porosity and less mineral content, making teeth brittle.
Skeletal fluorosis is caused due to excessive exposure of fluoride to the bones. The bones become hardened and less elastic, increasing the risk of fractures. The tissues may not heal fast or at all, causing permanent damage. If bone tissue is accumulated and the bones thicken it can restrict bone mobility, thereby, causing bent shoulders and joints in villagers. Over many years, it can cause a high amount of pain to the patient.
Fluoride can even damage the parathyroid gland in the body which causes hyperparathyroidism, leading to uncontrolled secretion of a large number of parathyroid hormones. This can further deplete the calcium in bones make them more prone to fractures. Fluoride not only causes infertility in women but can also inhibit the cognitive ability of a child in the womb.
In a research that was conducted, fluoride levels in 299 women during pregnancy, and in their children aged between 6 and 12 years were measured. The cognitive ability of the children at the ages of 4 years and between 6 and 12 years were taken into account. The results showed that a higher level of fluorides in the body was directly proportional to lower IQs in children.
What can (Should) be Done?
- Detection of fluorosis is the first step to finding a way to prevent it. Fluoride content in water should be regularly checked to make sure the water is fit for consumption. For accurate measurement, instruments like the Ion-electrode can be used, but there are simpler substitutes that give a good measurement too.
- Finding a safer source of water in the nearby areas that have a fluoride content lesser than 1.5mg/liter is one solution to the problem. But providing an entire district or local region with water from another district will require conscious efforts from the people and water harvesting. Yet, there is no guarantee that sufficient water for consumption will be made available to the entire population in that area.
- So what else can be done? Installing water purifiers, just starting with one or two in each district, can provide an instant and long term solution. The fluoride content in groundwater is on the rise and not enough measures have been taken to ensure that this content is inhibited. We don’t know how long the safe water sources will remain ‘safe’ for consumption and we don’t know whether these sources will get replenished in time to provide for all. With so many difficulties faced, the present solution of moving towards the use of water-purifiers is a conscious and radical solution to this problem.
- Water purifiers can effectively control the fluoride content of the water consumed by the local population and prevent diseases and health issues caused by it. The initial cost of the investment may be high but the return on this investment will be quality water available to the rural population and decrease in the number of young children having dental fluorosis and the number of elders having skeletal fluorosis. This initiative can provide a better quality of life to these inhabitants. And honestly, we all deserve safe drinking water, don’t we?