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by Robert Matthews
TOMORROW 10-year-old Lisa Wain will get into the dentist's chair hoping to put three years of taunts and teasing behind. She will be having veneers put over her top front four teeth to hide ugly, brown stains caused by fluoride, the compound put into toothpastes and drinking water supposedly to protect teeth.
"When Lisa's second teeth came through we saw that they had these patchy, brown stains on, and they started to go darker", said her mother, Patricia. "I took her to the dentist and asked him to clean them off. He said that they couldn't be cleaned off because it was staining caused by too much fluoride."
"Lisa has been teased with people saying she doesn't clean her teeth. In fact, she's never had any fillings. I was shocked because we're always being told how good fluoride is for teeth, especially for young children. No one said you could have too much."
Patricia Wain is one of dozens of parents throughout Britain planning to take on toothpaste manufacturers for allegedly not making clear the risks of dental fluorosis, the permanent discoloration of teeth caused by excess fluoride.
Claims that the parents should be granted legal aid to pursue their case are due to be heard in the High Court next month.
Their action highlights the growing doubts among some doctors about the health effects of the fluoridation of toothpaste and water - seen as one of the most successful public health measures of recent years.
First introduced into the water supplies of some parts of Britain in the early 1970s, fluoride is thought to protect teeth by boosting the resistance of enamel to the acid produced by bacteria in the mouth.
Scientists accept that fluoride is poisonous if taken in excess, and guidelines have been introduced to control levels in toothpastes and water. But with so many dental products also containing fluoride, there is a danger that these levels are being exceeded. Ironically, it is the children of the most conscientious parents who may be at most risk.
Some scientists are also concerned about the reports of long-term health effects of fluoride in adults. The compound is known to stimulate bone growth, and is sometimes used to combat osteoporosis, the thinning of bones that affects many elderly women. This replacement bone can be brittle, however, and some recent studies in America have found links between water fluoridation and an increased risk of hip fractures.
According to Dr Sheila Gibson of Glasgow Homoeopathic Hospital, a researcher into the health effects of fluoride, the compound has also been linked to reduced thyroid activity, depressed insulin release by the pancreas, and erosion of the stomach lining. In the laboratory, Dr Gibson has also shown that fluoride may depress the disease-fighting immune system of humans, by reducing the mobility of white blood cells.
"I believe that the addition of fluoride to water should be abandoned there are so many adverse health effects", said Dr Gibson. A number of countries, including Scotland she said, had either never been convinced by the benefits of fluoridation, or had abandoned it. "Rates of dental decay have been falling through better diet and oral hygiene in any case", she said.
Her views are countered by Professor John Murray, Dean of the Dental School of Newcastle University, who believes that, overall, fluoride has been an outstanding success.
He quoted a recent Office of Population Censuses and Surveys report which showed that in 1973, the average 15-year-old had about eight of his or her 32 teeth affected with decay, fillings, or missing altogether. In 1993, that average had dropped to two. Over a similar period, the average number of diseased teeth in children aged five or under fell from four to fewer than two. The best figures were recorded in England, which has made most use of fluoridation.
Even so, Prof Murray accepts that there can be problems of excess fluoride if children are given adult toothpastes, which contain up to four times more fluoride than children's toothpaste.
"If you have a toddler wandering around with a toothbrush with one of these higher-level toothpastes on, and swallowing the toothpaste, then there can be a problem", he said. "The antidote is to use children's toothpaste."
With possible legal action pending, toothpaste manufacturers were reluctant to comment on the health effects of fluoride. Elida Gibbs, makers of Mentadent and Signal, said that it issues clear instructions about the use of its products with young children.