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Unfiltered Tap Water: Worth the Risk?

Up until recently the main debate over water was fluoridated versus not fluoridated. Activists from both sides of the issue have presented their cases to communities around America, to varying degrees of success, but the debates still rage on. Now, a new risk has entered the fold in the water debate, and it could complicate an already confusing situation.

According to a new study by the Department of Dental Ecology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, people who drink tap water have lower rates of cavities but could also have higher levels of lead in their blood.

"After what happened in Flint, Michigan, there has been a greater focus on lead and other dangerous elements in our public drinking water," says Allen, Texas, dentist Dr. Stephen Hill. "It’s actually a great thing to have this level of awareness, but it also has the potential to backfire."

That’s because, as Hill and many other dentists fear, the panic over lead in public water supplies such as those in Flint, Michigan, may dissuade people from drinking fluoridated tap water, putting their teeth at risk in the process. Lead in public water supplies has been found to cause everything from delayed puberty to kidney, heart and nerve damage and even birth defects.

"Lead is a serious problem, and extremely dangerous, but it’s important to know that it’s relatively uncommon in most water supplies," says Hill. "It’s very bad in Flint, but most areas are tested regularly and are very safe."

The Chapel Hill study echoes this sentiment, and encourages citizens to evaluate their water source on a case-by-case basis.

"Your local public works department conducts regular water testing, and those results should be available to the public," says Hill. "I encourage you to review the report for your local water supply and make your decision based on that, not on what’s happening in Michigan. Many cities will even come to your home and test your tap water for free so you can have a better idea about not just what your city is putting out, but what is coming out of your family’s faucet."

For those homes that do have higher-than-normal levels of lead in their water, Hill suggests families speak to their dentist about some little-known workarounds.

"Your dentist can prescribe fluoride tablets to take daily if your water supply isn’t fluoridated or if you don’t drink tap water," he says. "This way you can still get the benefits of daily fluoride, but you can drink water from a source you feel safe drinking from. It’s a win-win."

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