TRENTON – Fluoridation‘s biggest opponents squared off against its biggest boosters yesterday in a battle over whether the additive will be required in the drinking water of all 8.5 million New Jerseyans.
The state’s Public Health Council spent most of the afternoon listening to and asking questions of the experts. The council will likely take a while to sort things out.
“It would be much easier for us to punt than to listen,” council chairman Robert Pallay said. “This is not a slam dunk on either side.”
The New Jersey Dental Association filed a petition asking that the council require fluoridation of the state’s public water supplies. New Jersey ranks near the bottom of the nation in the fluoridation of water, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Federal agencies, including the CDC, have long advocated fluoride in tap water as an inexpensive means of reducing tooth decay – particularly for children. Advocates say every $1 spent on fluoridation prevents $38 in restorative dental care.
Fluoride must be delivered in certain concentrations for it to be effective. Too much is considered dangerous.
Opponents say putting fluoride into the water supply amounts to mass medication with a substance they say can cause cancer and bone and brain damage.
They also argue that fluoride is available as an additive in many forms – toothpaste, dental rinses, bottled water – over which the user has discretion.
But William Maas, director the CDC’s oral health division, said studies had demonstrated that people benefit most when fluoride comes through the tap.
He said 60 years of experience with fluoride had helped significantly to reduce tooth decay.
“Fluoridation is safe,” he said.
About two-thirds of Americans get fluoride in their water, according to the CDC. In New Jersey, about one-fifth of the population get the additive. Just over half of Pennsylvanians have fluoride in their water.
In 13 states plus the District of Columbia, more than 90 percent of the population gets fluoridated water. Eleven states mandate fluoridation.
J. William Hirzy, a chemist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency who speaks on behalf of his union rather than for the government, said it was unusual to have both sides in one room.
“It’s a momentous thing that you’re doing here,” he said.
Hirzy said putting fluoride in drinking water amounted to “disposal of toxic waste.” He urged the council not only to reject the call for fluoridation but to suspend its use in communities that now have it.
He and Paul Connett, a chemistry professor at St. Lawrence University in New York, argued that countries that do not use fluoride in their water have experience reductions in tooth decay similar to that in the United States. Hirzy said Canada, Cuba and Finland had abandoned fluoridation.
“The benefits are grossly exaggerated,” Connett said.
Maas said objective science does not support opponents of fluoridation.
“Their goal is to plant doubts in your mind,” he said.
Howard Pollick, fluoridation spokesman for the American Dental Association, accused opponents of waging a “misinformation” campaign.
“Junk science has played a role in provoking opposition to water fluoridation,” he said. “In fact, some decision-makers have been persuaded to postpone action on several cost-effective public-health measures after hypothetical risks have made their way into the public media. Those involved in policy decisions need to be able to distinguish junk science from legitimate scientific research.”
Pallay said he expected to ask more questions to both sides before the council decided whether to write a rule requiring fluoridation or to reject the dental association’s petition