As it has for nearly three decades, Breckenridge will continue treating all public water with fluoride — at least for the time being.
A small, yet passionate group of anti-fluoride activists gathered Tuesday afternoon at the Breckenridge Town Council work session, where they urged council members to repeal the long-held policy of mandatory fluoridation.
The activists ranged from parents to business owners to concerned citizens, including the founders of Fluoride Free Breckenridge, a relatively new Facebook group with nearly 600 likes. One man, who asked to remain anonymous, drew attention to the work session — and its controversial topic — weeks in advance by scrawling the word “Fluorigate” in front of town hall.
“It’s been a controversial issue since it was first started in 1945,” said Summit County environmental health manager Dan Hendershott, referring to the year fluoride was first introduced to municipal water systems in the U.S. “Whenever you’re adding something to water, it’s always going to make people nervous, and not only are consumers nervous, I’d say government officials are also a bit cautious about this.”
Before the meeting, Hendershott noted that nearly 70 years of conflicting research shows that fluoride has verified pros and alarming cons — perhaps the only point upon which activists, town experts and council members agree.
On the pro side, studies from the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show fluoride is a cost-effective way to maintain oral health — the CDC declared it one of the “10 great public health interventions of the 20th century — while on the con side, studies by the University of Kent in the United Kingdom suggest it affects thyroid health, along with issues ranging from fluorosis (or tooth discoloration) to skeletal strength and IQ impacts.
“I wasn’t super concerned about it at first, but the same issue kept coming up again and again,” said Clover Stein, cofounder of Fluoride Free Breckenridge, who has suffered from hypothyroidism and found fluoride is a cause. “After doing research, what I found was appalling — just shocking.”
FLUORIDE IN BRECK
The fluoride debate was sparked in early December, when Stein and fellow resident Rene Bartnick approached the town council at an informal coffee-talk session to reconsider a policy Bartnick called “mass medication without consent” during her presentation. Several other activists echoed the statement to rounds of applause.
“The more you read about this the more you realize just how detrimental it can become,” Stein said. She and Bartnick found in their research that the powdered fluoride added to most U.S. water systems is a byproduct of Chinese fertilizer plants. Tom Daugherty, the town’s public works director, couldn’t confirm the exact supplier of Breckenridge fluoride when asked by council members, though he said it is tested to meet purity standards set by American National Standards Institute.
In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services together suggested dropping the recommended levels of fluoride in drinking water, from a range of 0.7 to 1.2 milligrams per liter to a static rate of 0.7 milligrams per liter, according to a fluoride fact sheet from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Breckenridge water currently has a fluoride level of 0.7 milligrams per liter, which the town adopted before final EPA recommendation. Without added fluoride, the town’s water supply contains roughly 0.08 milligrams per liter, though homes with private wells vary wildly.
“Some of our mining history has caused, I think, an upside-down water table were you have more fluoride than you’d expect otherwise,” said Mayor John Warner, a career dentist who supported fluoridation in 1985 when the town was weighing grants to install the current system. “At the time, it was me trying to do something that felt professionally responsible.”
After nearly an hour of appeals and questions, the council decided to “stay the course” with fluoridation, with Councilmembers Ben Brewer and Elisabeth Lawrence questioning why scientists can’t agree on public fluoridation.
“If we’re going to put it in, we need to prove it’s helpful, not harmful,” Ben Brewer said. “That needs to be done before we put anything in our water. To me, our water is a precious resource, it’s something we all rely on and I think there needs to be a very high bar if we are adding to that.”
The remainder of the council was swayed in part by research presented by Hendershott and Daugherty. The two argued that despite disagreements, the majority of major medical associations support fluoridation. It can be a cost-effective way of preventing tooth decay, particularly for residents without access to full dental care. A 2005 Colorado study showed public fluoridation saved residents $149 million in avoided dental treatment, or roughly $61 per person across the state.
Yet monetary savings still didn’t outweigh scientific disparities, even as the council neared a decision.
“The struggle for me is when you read the facts, there are facts on both sides,” Councilman Mark Burke said. “What studies can we rely on?”
THE NEXT STEP
After the council made its decision, Warner told the activists they have the option to bring fluoride to public vote through petition and referendum. Stein and Bartnick admit there is evidence showing the pros and cons of fluoridation, but both believe the council’s decision was made before they arrived.
“It has taken me many, many months to go through the research that’s out there and find meaningful information,” Stein said. “I’m disappointed with what happened at the meeting. I believe we were pushed aside and not given chance to have our full say.”
During the regular council meeting, long after the activists left, the council returned to fluoride and talked about ways to battle scientific unknowns while moving forward with fluoridation. Lawrence suggested educational programs in local schools, while Warner offered to give town staff a mailing list with local dentists.
For Stein, the most pressing concern is again medicating everyone, particularly children, without consent.
“They like to drink from the fountains,” Stein said of her two young boys. “It’s fun for them — I’m not going to tell them no because I’m not that kind of mother — but I wince now every time they do.”
Fluoride: Pros and cons
For 70 years, fluoride has been added to public water supplies in the U.S. A brief look at the current facts, pros and cons:
• Added to 74 percent of municipal water systems in U.S.
• Added to 72 percent of municipal water systems in U.S.
• Found in water from Breckenridge, Dillon and Silverthorne
• Not found in water from Frisco
• Not found in water from Vail, Edwards and Gypsum
• Majority of fluoride in Europe found in food (salt, milk and bread)
• Cavity prevention
• Enamel strengthening
• Cost-effective oral health option
• Dental and skeletal fluorosis
• Bone cancer
• Lower IQs
Sources: Town of Breckenridge; Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Oral Health Program fact sheet.