You may have heard about the controversy over whether fluoride is safe to put into our water supply. The chemical is said to lead to better dental health, thus its inclusion in the liquid that we all drink each day.

But it’s not uncommon for me to hear people from my friends to anonymous web users on the internet warning me of fluoride’s dangers. It can be dangerous in high doses, they say.

There is even a conspiracy theory that it lowers the IQ of the population, making the citizenry easier to control.

Today I will examine the ability of the substance to treat tooth decay, and the hazards posed by consuming it.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends fluoridation of the water, there have been a number of studies linking to health benefits in fluoride. On the CDC’s website, the page titled “Community Water Fluoridation” lists five reports by the National Research Council spanning more than 50 years. The most recent report, which was in 2007, states that fluoride is useful for “preventing tooth decay” and “contributing to bone mineralization and bone matrix integrity.”

But not all researchers are crazy about fluoride. The Cochrane Collaboration, an independent group of experts, believes that much of the methodology of the NRC is flawed. After the health effects of fluoride were discovered, manufacturers began putting the chemical in toothpaste, dental floss and mouth wash. Many of the studies on the fluoridation of water did not take this societal shift into account, the Cochrane researchers say.

This widespread adoption of fluoride in dental hygiene products may explain why countries that do not fluoridate their water saw improvements in dental health over the same time span. The NRC could be giving the fluoridation of water too much credit, when it was other sources of fluoride that led to our boom in dental health.

That is not to say we should get rid of it, if a modest amount of fluoride still provides some benefits overall.

As for health risks associated with consuming fluoride, the NRC has some answers on that, too. In its 2006 report, the NRC states that fluoride in higher-than-optimal doses can be dangerous, especially to children eight and under. Likewise, a 2012 report by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences found that high levels of fluoride may negatively affect the brain development of children. I think it is safe to say that the amount of fluoride we put in our water should be very carefully measured.

Overall, I am still a supporter. I think that, worldwide, the fluoridation of water has the potential to help many developing parts of the country. However, here in the western world, its benefits are less pronounced.