A meeting of the Austin city council’s Public Health and Human Services Committee drew a hefty crowd to City Hall Tuesday afternoon, many waving mock-ups of vintage cigarette advertisements for brands "recommended" by doctors and dentists.
The committee met in the council chambers where the audience was nearly full thanks to a call to arms issued by a group called Fluoride Free Austin, whose members want the city to stop putting fluoride in city water. They compared the once prevalent support of cigarettes to the current support of fluoridation.
Members of the group have spoken during public comment periods before, but Tuesday was the first time an agenda item came before a council committee.
Council member Randi Shade presided over the at times rowdy meeting, alongside council member Laura Morrison and Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez.
“This is the first conversation about this for us,” Shade said. “It may seem very simple to you who spend hundreds of hours on this, but it’s not to us.”
Dr. Philip Huang, medical director of the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department, and Jane Burazer, assistant director of Austin Water Utility, spoke in favor of continuing to fluoridate the water as it has done since the 1970s.
Austin city water currently contains .7 parts per million of fluoride in the water, which is in line with the most recent recommendation from the Center for Disease Control. The annual cost of the program – with labor and maintenance of the fluoridation system – is $489,717, Burazer said, or about 55 cents per capita.
“At this point in time, I’ve looked at the evidence and I don’t see any need to overturn the fluoridation policy,” Huang said.
On the pro-fluoride side, Huang and Burazer pointed to information from the CDC and Environmental Protection Agency that seems to affirm that there is nothing harmful about water fluoridation.
The EPA sites the unsafe level of fluoridation at 4 parts per million, Burazer said. The CDC’s webpage calls water fluoridation one of the 10 greatest public health achievements of the 20th Century for helping to prevent tooth decay.
On the other side of the issue, members from Flouride Free Austin ranging from everyday citizens to doctors and dentists pointed to other information from the CDC and EPA that they cast in a different light, as well as other studies and information such as a recommendation from the American Dental Association that infant formula not be mixed using fluoridated water.
Neil Carman, a doctor who spoke for Fluoride Free Austin, said the problem isn’t fluoride itself – which is naturally occurring in Austin’s water at about .2 parts per million – but that the additional fluoridation is done with a chemical compound containing fluoride as well as other toxic chemicals.
“To look at the toxicity of this has not been done,” he said.
Some members of the group referred to the city’s fluoridation process as “poisoning” the water with the risk of thyroid and bone problems. Some said given the questions about it, fluoridation is just too costly during a budget crunch. Others said it’s mass medicating the population without their consent.
“Even if it is good for you, do you know any other drug that is dispensed in a one-size-fits-all to everyone without a prescription or consent?” said group member Paul Norris.
While many of those who spoke before the council Tuesday were respectful to the council members behind the dais, there were hecklers in the crowd and one anti-fluoridation speaker from the community accused the council of receiving financial gain from continuing fluoridation.
At the end of the meeting, Shade issued a rebuke to the hecklers.
“We’ve opened up a dialogue. Ultimately it’s a decision of the council, and we’re going to have to get there. We’ll do our homework, but attacking us as corrupt is not the right way to go,” Shade said.
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