Fluoride or Sodium Hydroxide?

An Environmental Detective Story

Dan Montgomery

December 3, 1996

In October, 1995, I noticed a change in the water quality in Santa Rosa. Each time I drank the water it caused pain in the gums. I switched to using spring water so I could see what difference it made. Each time I tried to go back to drinking the city's water, the pain came back. The contrast was clear.

In my experience, this kind of painful damage to the gums resulting from a change in the local water supply suggested that fluoride was being added. I called the Sonoma County Water Agency which supplies the water for Santa Rosa. I talked to several personnel. They told me that fluoride was not being added to the water. I doubted their story. I arranged for a lab test. The lab reported that the water sample I brought them contained only .12 parts per million fluoride. I arranged for another lab to test the water. They reported .20 parts per million in the water. Fluoride was not being added. I looked for another explanation for the change in water quality. I called the water agency and this time I asked if there had been any change in water quality or if they were doing something different than they had before.

Yes, they said, they started adding caustic soda to the water in October, 1995, but they were certain it could not possibly harm anybody. The chemical name of caustic soda is sodium hydroxide. It is a strong alkali and is sometimes used as a soaping agent. The purpose of the sodium hydroxide is to raise the pH to 8.2. The high pH reduces corrosion of pipes by making the water more alkaline. This is a popular method of meeting Environmental Protection Agency standards which limit the amount of heavy metals allowed in waste water. Lead and copper are the heavy metals of greatest concern.

The plumbing in many older homes was installed with metal pipes. Heavy metals can be leached from these pipes by soft water. Soldering of pipe joints used to be done with solder that contained lead. In Santa Rosa, most homes have been built since the plumbing standards were revised. Newer homes have plastic pipes, except for the small fittings for the faucets which are made with soft copper tubes. These copper tubes are a significant source of copper in the waste water.

I thought back to other places I had lived. I used to live in Portland, Oregon. They never fluoridated their water. The suburban town of Tigard treats their water with soda ash (sodium carbonate) to raise the pH. I could never drink the water in Tigard without aggravating a painful gum disease. I had assumed that Tigard's water was fluoridated. Now, I checked the records and found that Tigard never had fluoridated water.

A medical experiment by Grimbergen and others, published in Fluoride, reported the results of a double blind test with fluoridated water. Only half of the experimental subjects who initially thought that their symptoms were due to fluoridated water were confirmed to have a symptom that was caused by fluoride drops which were added to coded bottles of water. One might hypothesize that some of these people who thought it was the fluoride were being harmed by something else in the water.

Sodium hydroxide doesn't completely prevent corrosion, even at pH 8.2, which is a rather high pH. An employee at the Sonoma County Water Agency told me on December 22, 1995 that after one month of adding sodium hydroxide the copper levels in the waste water had only gone down by one half. It was good enough to be within the limits for copper in waste water set forth by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Adding sodium hydroxide is a quick and easy solution to the copper pollution. A better solution might be to replace the copper tubes with steel tubes and revise the building codes for metal tubing. Copper tubing is easier to bend to a desired shape because it is softer than steel tubing. It takes a little more time to install steel tubing, but the long term benefit would be worth it. The cost of sodium hydroxide would be avoided. Not using sodium hydroxide may prevent adverse effects upon the health of some individuals. Adding sodium hydroxide is not the only alternative for complying with Environmental Protection Agency standards.

Copyright © 2002 Daniel A. Montgomery