High fluoride and low calcium levels in drinking water is associated with low bone mass, reduced bone quality and fragility fractures in sheep


M. J. K. Simon, F. T. Beil, W. Rüther, B. Busse, T. Koehne, M. Steiner, P. Pogoda, A. Ignatius, M. Amling, R. Oheim


Summary Chronic environmental fluoride exposure under calcium stress causes fragility fractures due to osteoporosis and bone quality deterioration, at least in sheep. Proof of skeletal fluorosis, presenting without increased bone density, calls for a review of fracture incidence in areas with fluoridated groundwater, including an analysis of patients with low bone mass.

Introduction Understanding the skeletal effects of environmental fluoride exposure especially under calcium stress remains an unmet need of critical importance. Therefore, we studied the skeletal phenotype of sheep chronically exposed to highly fluoridated water in the Kalahari Desert, where livestock is known to present with fragility fractures.

Methods Dorper ewes from two flocks in Namibia were studied. Chemical analyses of water, blood and urine were executed for both cohorts. Skeletal phenotyping comprised micro-computer tomography (μCT), histological, histomorphometric, biomechanical, quantitative backscattered electron imaging (qBEI) and energy-dispersive X-ray (EDX) analysis. Analysis was performed in direct comparison with undecalcified human iliac crest bone biopsies of patients with fluoride-induced osteopathy.

Results The fluoride content of water, blood and urine was significantly elevated in the Kalahari group compared to the control. Surprisingly, a significant decrease in both cortical and trabecular bones was found in sheep chronically exposed to fluoride. Furthermore, osteoid parameters and the degree and heterogeneity of mineralization were increased. The latter findings are reminiscent of those found in osteoporotic patients with treatment-induced fluorosis. Mechanical testing revealed a significant decrease in the bending strength, concurrent with the clinical observation of fragility fractures in sheep within an area of environmental fluoride exposure.

Conclusions Our data suggest that fluoride exposure with concomitant calcium deficit (i) may aggravate bone loss via reductions in mineralized trabecular and cortical bone mass and (ii) can cause fragility fractures and (iii) that the prevalence of skeletal fluorosis especially due to groundwater exposure should be reviewed in many areas of the world as low bone mass alone does not exclude fluorosis.

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