Southeastern Connecticut's public water companies say proposed federal guidelines that would lower the recommended amount of fluoride in water would mean a small reduction in the amount of fluoride they now add but be relatively easy to accomplish.
But the companies say they will await a directive from the state Department of Public Health, which regulates public water supplies, before making any adjustments. The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services on Friday announced they were considering setting recommended fluoride levels at .7 milligrams per liter of water, down from the current range of .7 milligrams to 1.2 milligrams per liter.
At .7 milligrams, the two agencies said fluoridated water would still be effective at preventing tooth decay, but would help reduce the incidence of a condition known as fluorosis, an overexposure to fluoride, which causes spots on tooth enamel, and in severe cases, staining and pitting of teeth. Pending publication of the proposed changes in the Federal Register, the public will have 30 days to comment. Final recommendations are expected to be issued this spring.
Since 1967, public water companies in Connecticut that serve at least 20,000 people have been required to add fluoride to water supplies at levels of .8 to 1.2 milligrams per liter.
"We're aware of the findings," said Richard Stevens, general manager of Groton Public Utilities, which serves customers in Groton, Ledyard and Montville. Until the state health department changes its required range, "we'll try to maintain the lower end of the scale."
Water in the Groton system has an average level of 1 milligram per liter of fluoride in its water, he said. Lowering that to .7 milligrams would mean a fairly easy adjustment to the control system that releases the hydrofluorosilic acid into the water supply. The fluoride in the additive then works to prevent tooth decay by helping rebuild tooth surfaces when that person drinks fluoridated water and beverages made with it, and fluoride gets into saliva. The effects are especially important for developing teeth, up to about age 8.
Fluoride, a compound of fluorine and minerals found in soil or rocks, occurs naturally in about 5 percent of public water supplies. It is added to about 65 percent of public water systems nationally.
Other local water systems that add fluoride include Norwich, New London, East Lyme, and Aquarion Water Co., which serves parts of Stonington and Mystic, and The Connecticut Water Co., which serves Old Saybrook, Madison, Guilford and Westbrook in a single system. The company also serves parts of Old Lyme and the Masons Island section of Stonington, but these are small systems not required to fluoridate, said Daniel Meaney, spokesman for Connecticut Water.
The Southeastern Connecticut Water Authority, which supplies water to about 10,000 people through 15 separate, small systems, does not fluoridate its water, said Gregory Leonard, general manager. The 15 systems serve parts of Ledyard, Montville, North Stonington and Stonington.
In East Lyme, water is fluoridated even though its municipal system serves 15,000 people, fewer than the number that triggers the state requirement. But officials there are considering whether to continue, said Brad Kargl, municipal utilities engineer for the town system.
"Fluoride is a cost, and there is manpower associated with monitoring it," he said. "And we're hearing more concerns (from customers) about possible health effects. If the customers don't want it, it's something we can revisit."
At the local companies that fluoridate water, levels are about 1 milligram per liter or slightly below, according to officials contacted Monday and company water quality reports posted online.
"We will be reviewing these studies and making sure we're in full compliance with state and federal regulations, but we are certainly at a point where our levels are not excessive," said Barry Weiner, chairman of the New London Water and Water Pollution Control Authority. The authority serves about 25,000 households in New London and Waterford.
Lowering the level, he said, would be "absolutely very simple, just turning a gauge a notch or two."
In Connecticut, said John Davis, president of the Connecticut State Dental Society, cases of fluorosis are very rare. The EPA and HHS said they were considering recommending lower fluoride levels because of two surveys showing an increase in cases since the 1980s, mostly in very mild and mild forms. They noted that the increased availability and use of fluoride toothpaste, mouth rinses, supplements and other products has increased many people's exposure to fluoride.
They also noted the marked decline in tooth decay in the United States since fluoridation of water supplies began in 1945, and said that fluoridated water is still the most economical and effective agent.
Davis said he sees no harm in lowering fluoride levels a bit, but noted that people will see no benefit unless they actually drink their tap water.
"Too many people are drinking bottled water," he said.