While many people consider fluoridation one of the greatest public-health success stories of the 20th century, a growing camp of scientists, dentists and activists asserts that the United States has a large-scale public-health disaster on its hands.
And last week, U.S. Sen. Robert C. Smith, R-N.H., called a senior employee of the Environmental Protection Agency to the nation’s Capitol to hear why.
“It’s been an issue that has gotten a lot of attention in the state, and Sen. Smith has heard from a number of folks in Manchester,” said Stephen Bentfield, press secretary for the Senate committee that held the hearing Friday.
Manchester narrowly approved fluoridation last fall. No communities in the Monadnock Region fluoridate their water supplies, but Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has urged Brattleboro to fluoridate.
John William Hirzey, a senior scientist in risk assessment for the EPA, told Smith’s committee why EPA’s unionized employees have opposed fluoridation since 1997.
Jeff Green, director of Citizens for Safe Drinking Water, a nationwide nonprofit organization, flew from California to Washington, D.C., to attend the hearing by Smith’s panel, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
He said it was the first scientific discussion of fluoride in a congressional hearing in 23 years.
“It wasn’t as large a step as I’d like to see, but it was a start,” Green said. “Most of us who look at this issue think the science is in,” and it runs against adding fluoride.
The hearing was held to hear testimony on fluoride, arsenic and radon in the nation’s drinking water.
Hirzey expounded on why opponents of fluoridation believe that ingesting the mineral may harm bones, hinder brain development, and lead to cancer.
“I am not here as a representative to the EPA, but rather as a representative of EPA headquarters professional employees, through their duly elected labor union,” Hirzey told senators. He said the union got involved in the issue in 1985 as a matter of “professional ethics.”
“In 1997, we most recently voted to oppose fluoridation. Our opposition has strengthened since then,” he said.
Hirzey detailed peer-reviewed studies that range from evaluating the effects of aluminum-fluoride in drinking water on rat brains and kidneys, to examining an elevated rate of hip fractures among elderly women in communities that fluoridate their water.
He also challenged the notion that the development of white spots on the teeth, known as dental fluorosis, is only a cosmetic side effect of fluoridation.
“That effect occurs when children ingest more fluoride than their bodies can handle … and their teeth are damaged as a result. And not only their teeth,” he said. Hirzey and other fluoridation opponents say that adding the mineral to drinking water leads to bone and tissue decay.
He recommended a blind review of a previously completed study, and new studies on hydrofluosilicic acid, a byproduct of the fertilizer industry that’s the most commonly used form of fluoride in U.S. communities.
Bentfield said that, after reviewing Hirzey’s testimony, the committee staff will follow up with questions. There are no plans for another congressional hearing, he said.
Fluoridation is a highly charged political issue. For 55 years, many cities and towns throughout the country have added low concentrations of fluoride to drinking water to counter tooth decay.
Ten communities in New Hampshire fluoridate their drinking water: Concord, Dover, Durham, Lakeport, Lancaster, Lebanon, Hanover, Portsmouth and Rochester, and Fryeburg, Maine, which supplies water to 100 Granite State residents. Manchester is scheduled to begin fluoridating this summer.
The U.S. government hails fluoridation for helping the lowest-income people — those who can’t afford dental care — at an average cost of 51 cents a year per person. Furthermore, fluoridation is endorsed by the American Dental Association, U.S. Public Health Service, American Medical Association and World Health Organization.
However, opponents dispute the conclusion that adding fluoride to drinking water has led to a decline in cavities. They attribute that decline to better dental awareness, antibiotics and frequent dentist visits.
The anti-fluoridation movement gained a controversial reputation in the 1950s for claiming that the government was trying to control the public through what it called mass medication.
But, over the years, scientists who have completed studies questioning fluoridation have been treated the same as the fringe radicals.
Keene anti-fluoridationist Gerhard Bedding, director of the N.H. Pure Water Association, said his organization is pleased that Smith requested Hirzey’s testimony.
“There are some important things that are not in general knowledge, and there are some ethical problems that Dr. Hirzey has addressed,” Bedding said.