Jesse Salisbury doesn’t like fluoride.
The 44-year-old Crescent City resident especially doesn’t like the fact that he consumes it almost every day when he pours water from his tap.
“I don’t believe that it’s right that anybody should be forcing medication on the population as a whole,” Salisbury said. “A topical solution is what you want if you really think it’s good for your teeth.”
Salisbury is the man behind a new push to remove fluoride from Crescent City’s water supply, and he was instrumental in getting the topic on the agenda for the upcoming City Council meeting Monday.
Nearly a half-century ago, voters approved a plan to put fluoride in Crescent City’s water tanks. The decision came about the same time the city decided to get its water from the Smith River rather than from a swamp next to the cemetery on Cooper Street.
Fluoridation began in the U.S. in the 1940s as a means to reduce tooth decay, and the practice became prevalent over time as cities added fluoride to their water supply.
Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls fluoridation “one of the 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century,” and that agency’s Web site states that in 2006 nearly 70 percent of the U.S. population that got its water from a public supply received fluoridated water.
Critics like Salisbury think fluoridation is a conspiracy, and contend that fluoride isn’t as good as everyone, including the American Dental Association, says it is.
“You say a lie enough times and everyone starts to believe it,” he said.
Salisbury, as well as many others across the country, claims fluoride is not a panacea for teeth, and consuming it can lead to some adverse health effects. Some of these problems can range from dental fluorosis — which is characterized by discoloration, enamel loss and pitting of the teeth and occurs when too much fluoride is consumed — to an increased risk of bone fractures.
These issues are supported in a 2006 report by the National Research Council that found that people who consume water with 4 milligrams of fluoride per liter in it are more susceptible to these conditions.
Crescent City’s fluoride level hovers between 0.8 to 1.2 milligram per liter.
Other anti-fluoride groups, such as the Fluoride Action Network, cite studies that have found high exposure to the mineral can lead to kidney and liver damage in children and even lower IQ.
“There are actually a lot of studies that have been done by other countries and they found that fluoride is bad for you,” Salisbury said. “If you really start looking into this thing it really starts looking like a conspiracy.”
Most dentists seem unconvinced. The American Dental Association endorses the fluoridation of community water systems and advocates for the use of products, like toothpaste, that contain fluoride.
Dr. Kirill Smirnoff is a local dentist at the Open Door Community Health Center, and he says fluoride is needed, especially in this community.
“This area is tremendously underserved dentally,” Smirnoff said. “We are seeing rampant caries (tooth decay) on children and adults that shouldn’t be seen.”
Like Del Norte County’s shortage of doctors, he said there’s a strain on dentists here, in particular on the dentists who serve Medi-Cal patients. Smirnoff said there are only two providers that consistently accept patients who are on Medi-Cal, though some practices will take certain people who receive state aid.
Even with fluoride in the water, Smirnoff said his office is stretched thin by the number of people who need dental work. Without it, he said he wouldn’t know how to handle the influx of people with tooth decay.
“If there was no fluoride I would probably hang myself (because) there’s so much disease that’s walking around,” Smirnoff said. “There’s no question in my mind that it’s a huge benefit.”
But where Smirnoff and other dentists see the potentially damaging effects of defluoridation, newly elected Crescent City Councilwoman Donna Westfall finds an opportunity for cost savings.
“There are a lot of health problems that have resulted from having fluoride in the water,” Westfall said. “But it’s not just health reasons — because I’m sure the dentists in town would probably have a cow if I just cited health reasons — but it’s also because of the fiscal impact.”
It costs Crescent City about $10,000 per year to fluoridate its water, and Westfall said this money could be used more effectively elsewhere.
“I’m looking for ways to cut back so we don’t have to cut back on personnel,” she said, “because everyone’s going to have a hard enough time with the economy.”
Westfall said she asked to place the issue on the council agenda after speaking with Salisbury.
It might be hard for Westfall to garner support from her peers, however, as a city staff report written by Interim City Manager Michael Young recommends leaving fluoride in the water.
“The dental health benefits far outweigh the costs,” Young said.
Since Crescent City decided to fluoridate its water supply by putting it to a vote, Young’s report states it would likely take another election to discontinue the operation. This could cost up to $17,000 if put to a ballot for a special election.
In addition the report states that if defluoridation does occur, “there would be an offsetting cost of increased dental care in an unknown amount, but probably significantly more than $10,000 per year.”
For these reasons, Young concludes his report by recommending the City Council not put the issue to a vote and instead put the burden on the public to bring a petition to City Hall.
Young said the city is well within safe concentration limits, and a lot more fluoride (“a multiple factor of hundreds of times”) would need to be pumped into the water to reach unsafe toxicity levels.
“It’s not like we have to walk a fine line between what we’re doing and what’s unsafe,” he said. “Every single element is harmful to us in the wrong quantity … even water.”