New Zealand policy makers and health professionals should be wary about much of the current media comments on the Cochrane Fluoridation Review (Iheozor-Ejiofor 2015). Anti-fluoridation campaigners are misrepresenting it and distorting its findings. They are using cherry-picked quotes to make claims about the review which are just not true.
Some are even claiming (wrongly) that the Cochrane review findings conflict with this in the NZ Fluoridation Review (Eason et al., 2014). Or that, simply because it was published a few months after the NZ Review it somehow makes the NZ Review obsolete.
Review findings agree
Nothing could be further from the truth. The findings in the Cochrane Review do not conflict with those in the NZ Review. And, because the Cochrane Review is much more limited than the NZ Review, policy makers and health professionals should not consider that as the only document required for their reading.
In particular, the Cochrane Review considered only questions of community water fluoridation (CWF) efficacy. It did not consider aspects related to health concerns which, of course, are always in the front of the minds of policy makers and health professionals.
I have done a side-by-side comparison of the two reviews and summarise their findings below
The Cochrane reviewers produced a quantitative estimate for the effect of CWF on dental decay, but only for children and used only studies satisfying their strict selection criteria (see Cochrane fluoridation review. I: Most research ignored). This unfortunately excluded more recent high-quality cross-sectional studies.
The NZ Reviewers did not produce an overall quantitative estimate but made more general conclusions.
NZ Fluoridation Review
|Efficacy of CWF|
|“Data suggest that the introduction of water fluoridation resulted in a 35% reduction in decayed, missing or filled baby teeth and a 26% reduction in decayed, missing or filled permanent teeth. It also increased the percentage of children with no decay by 15%. These results indicate that water fluoridation is effective at reducing levels of tooth decay in both children’s baby and permanent teeth”.||“Analysis of evidence from a large number of epidemiological studies and thorough systematic reviews has confirmed a beneficial effect of CWF on oral health throughout the lifespan. This includes relatively recent studies in the context of the overall reduced burden of caries that has resulted from the widespread use of topical fluoride products (e.g. toothpastes, mouth rinses, and fluoride varnishes).”|
|No conclusions because of study selection limitations.||“Although most studies of the effects of CWF have focused on benefits in children, caries
experience continues to accumulate with age, and CWF has also been found to help reduce the extent and severity of dental decay in adults, particularly with prolonged exposure. The long history of CWF around the world now means that many adults in late life have experienced a lifetime of fluoridation. The benefits for adult dental health include lower levels of root caries, and better tooth retention into old age.”
|No conclusions because of study selection limitations.||“The burden of tooth decay is highest among the most deprived socioeconomic groups, and this is the segment of the population for which the benefits of CWF appear to be greatest. CWF appears to be most cost-effective in those communities that are most in need of improved oral health. In New Zealand, these include communities of low socioeconomic status, and those with a high proportion of children or Māori. A number of studies have suggested that the benefits of CWF are greatest among the most deprived socioeconomic groups, although the magnitude of the difference is uncertain.”|
|Effect of stopping fluoridation|
|No conclusions because of study selection limitations.||“Stopping CWF leads to ~17% increase in caries experience” cited from US Task Force on Community Preventive Services|
|Influence of fluoridated toothpaste, etc.|
|No conclusions because of study selection limitations.||The beneficial effect of CWF on oral health is still shown in relatively recent studies illustrating the overall reduced burden of caries that has resulted from the widespread use of topical fluoride products (e.g. toothpastes, mouth rinses, and fluoride varnishes). “In New Zealand, significant differences in decay rates between fluoridated and non-fluoridated communities continue to exist, despite the fact that the majority of people use fluoride toothpastes.”|
Health issues related to CWF
Dental fluorosis is generally considered the only negative health results of CWF. Both Reviews did consider dental fluorosis, although the Cochrane review did not specifically compare fluoridated and unfluoridated areas – which is necessary to determine the effect of fluoridation on dental fluorosis prevalence. See Cochrane fluoridation review. III: Misleading section on dental fluorosis for a discussion of this and an estimate fo the effect of CWF on dental fluorosis calculated using the Cochrane data.
The Cochrane review did not consider any other health effects.
|Cochrane Review||NZ Fluoridation Review|
|Only calculated effect of fluoride intake in dental fluorosis. The effect of CWF itself was not considered. However, this can be estimated by subtracting prevalence for unfluoridated region. These estimates indicate that dental fluorosis levels of aesthetic concern are similar in fluoridated and unfluoridated areas (see Cochrane fluoridation review. III: Misleading section on dental fluorosis).
“The prevalence of fluorosis of aesthetic concern is minimal in New Zealand, and is
not different between fluoridated and non-fluoridated communities, confirming that a substantial proportion of the risk is attributable to the intake of fluoride from sources other
than water (most notably, the swallowing of high-fluoride toothpaste by young children).
The current fluoridation levels therefore appear to be appropriate. It is important, however, that the chosen limit continues to protect the majority of high-exposure individuals.”
|Not considered||“We conclude that on the available evidence there is no appreciable effect on cognition arising from CWF.”|
|Not considered||“We conclude that on the available evidence there is no appreciable risk of cancer arising from CWF.”|
|Not considered||“Studies and systematic reviews have found no evidence that consumption of optimally fluoridated drinking water increases the risk of developing kidney disease. However, individuals with impaired kidney function experience higher/more prolonged fluoride exposure after
ingestion because of reduced urinary fluoride excretion, and those with end stage kidney
disease may be at greater risk of fluorosis.”
The Cochrane review is far more limited in its coverage than the NZ Fluoridation Review. It did not consider possible health effects (apart from dental fluorosis) which is an important aspect of the fluoridation controversy for health professionals and policy makers.
The two Reviews agree that CWF is effective for children, but the NZ Review also considered effectiveness for adults, the reduction of socioeconomic differences in oral health and effects of stopping fluoridation on tooth decay. It also considered more recent research than the Cochrane review, so was able to discuss possible reduction in the efficacy of CWF due to the use of fluoridated toothpaste in recent years.
The Cochrane review does not make the NZ Fluoridation Review obsolete at all. Nor do its conclusions conflict with those of the New Zealand Review.
Policy makers and health professionals should pay attention to both reviews in making judgements of CWF efficacy, but will need to use the NZ Review for their judgements on possible health effects.
New Zealand Fluoridation Review:
Eason, C., & Elwood, JM. Seymour, Thomson, WM. Wilson, N. Prendergast, K. (2014). Health effects of water fluoridation : A review of the scientific evidence.
Cochrane Fluoridation Review:
Iheozor-Ejiofor, Z., Worthington, HV., Walsh, T., O’Malley, L., Clarkson, JE., Macey, R., Alam, R., Tugwell, P., Welch, V., Glenny, A. (2015). Water fluoridation for the prevention of dental caries (Review). The Cochrane Library, (6).