FAIRBANKS — A special task force has recommended Fairbanks stop fluoridating its water supply.
Five of the six members agreed to the recommendation, giving two main reasons — city water contains naturally-occurring fluoride and amounts higher than those natural levels could harm non-nursing infants.
The committee published a draft report Tuesday and is asking for public comment through the end of the month.
It was not an easy conclusion, said committee chairman Paul Reichardt, professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
“The vote doesn’t really represent how conflicted all of us were,” he said.
The task force was formed a year ago to advise the Fairbanks City Council on the benefits and risks of adding fluoride to the public water supply, which has been required by city law for five decades. The task force includes scientists, a pediatrician and a dentist.
During the past year, it has studied the health effects, history and extent of fluoride use. It has also taken extensive public comment.
Fluoride can be applied topically or ingested, but is more effective when ingested, said Chris Henry, a Fairbanks dentist and orthodontist and president-elect for the Alaska Dental Society. It is most important during formative years, he said.
“When you intake the fluoride as a developing child, the tooth structure becomes stronger from the inside out, as opposed to topically,” Henry said.
The main risk of too much fluoride is fluorosis, or splotchy teeth. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the condition was growing among children during the past couple decades, partly because they get fluoride from other sources.
Local water has natural fluoride levels of 0.3 parts per million. The utility had been boosting those levels to 1 ppm, based on federal health recommendations, for decades. When the recommendation was changed last month, Golden Heart Utilities lowered levels to 0.7 ppm.
The committee said none should be added. It faced a tough choice between protecting a benefit for the majority or protecting a vulnerable minority, Reichardt said.
“Because we do have significant questions about non-nursing infants and young kids in general, we came up with something with the best chance of protecting them,” he said.
Not knowing how much fluoride people consume, from water and other sources, also influenced the decision, Reichardt said.
“A lousy way to administer a dose is to provide people an unlimited amount of something with a certain concentration,” he added.
Other communities have wrestled with the same dilemma. Juneau decided to stop fluoridating its water about a year ago. The national bent is still toward fluoride, the report showed. It said 60 percent of the U.S. population drinks fluoridated water, and within a recent 10-year period, 200 communities across the country either adopted or kept fluoridation while 100 communities turned it down or quit.
The issue came before the City Council in 2008 and has stirred controversy ever since. Some, like the group Fluoride Free Fairbanks, say fluoride does more harm than good.
“I think this is very good news for the community, particularly for people that have not had another source of fluoride-free water,” said Douglas Yates, educational director for the group.
Henry, on the other hand, said rampant decay is a bigger risk than fluorosis, which is mainly cosmetic.
“If this is taken away, the detrimental thing will be that people in certain socioeconomic levels, that couldn’t see a dentist in the first place, will no longer have that benefit,” he said.
He said the effects won’t be apparent for eight or 10 years. But he has seen more cavities in Valdez, which has no fluoride program.
The City Council could deal with the report in several ways. It could pass an ordinance, take no action or put the issue on the ballot.
The task force is expected to turn in a final draft in April.