Rosemary Minervini says she’s not a “fluorophobic.”
The Orem resident and president of the Provo chapter of Citizens for Safe Drinking Water just wants the public to hear her side of the contentious water fluoridation debate.
With roughly two months remaining before residents in Salt Lake and Davis counties vote on whether to fluoridate public water supplies, Minervini and others who adamantly oppose the practice are busy gathering information, passing out fliers and attending local meetings to rally support for their cause.
But for the first time in decades, it appears their efforts may be for naught.
It’s taken nearly 40 years, but supporters of fluoridating water appear at this point to have the upper hand in the long fight over fluoridated water in Utah.
Informal polls by the Davis County Board of Health show the majority of residents there want fluoridated water, with only 20 percent in the county adamantly or somewhat opposed. In Salt Lake County, Utahns for Better Dental Health was able to collect roughly 10,000 more signatures than was necessary to place the issue on the ballot.
Davis County Board of Health chairwoman Beth Beck, who retired this week from her position as assistant principal at Woods Cross High School so she could devote more time to the fluoride campaign, says “an incredible amount of work” is what has made the difference.
The effort included pushing through legislation this year that allows smaller counties such as Davis to place the issue on the ballot without a citizen signature-gathering process. And another key to their strategy has been ignoring the opposition. Whether it is because they are so close to fluoridation becoming a reality and don’t want to risk it slipping away, or because they believe anti-fluoridation really is junk science, leaders of the fluoride movement refuse to debate their opponents.
“They’re just not a legitimate organization,” Dr. Anthony Tidwell of the Salt Lake Valley Board of Health said. “I don’t think the antis have any right to even be on the podium because their arguments are so asinine. All they do is stir up fear and questions, and they can put out as many questions as they want but we can only bat so many back.” A debate “may put doubts in people’s minds.”
Opponents of fluoridated drinking water for decades have been successful in hampering efforts in Utah to place the issue on the ballot or have the initiative pass. Currently only Brigham City, Helper and Hill Air Force Base ? less than 3 percent of the state ? have fluoridated public drinking water. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 62.2 percent of the U.S. population drink public water supplies with fluoridated water, or a total of 144.6 million Americans.
In 1961, Salt Lake City voters rejected the fluoride question at the ballot, and it was again rejected in 1972 when the initiative failed a Salt Lake County vote. More recently, Tooele residents voted the initiative down in 1993.
Salt Lake and Davis county commissioners failed to put the issue to a vote in 1998, the latter citing concerns that low voter turnout could allow a small group of supporters or opposition to determine the outcome.
But this year proponents have finally collected enough signatures or pushed commissioners to place the issue on November’s general election ballot in the two counties, as have several cities in Cache County, and there is still a possibility Utah and Weber counties could join them.
Fluorosis vs. cavities
The opposition’s arguments against fluoride have evolved over the years from a Communist conspiracy to a modern-day health hazard. Today, fluoride opponents argue that despite the substance’s cavity fighting benefits, putting a “one size fits all” dosage in the public water supply could result in overdoses that can cause fluorosis, which leads to staining and spotting of the teeth. Some people are allergic to fluoride, opponents say, and the substance has been linked to a host of health problems, including weakening of bones.
Opponents also say putting the substance in a public water supply infringes on their rights, as those who want fluoride have the alternative of getting it through supplements or topical treatments.
Supporters dismiss those concerns as paranoid and unfounded. They are trying to appeal to the citizens’ soft spot for Utah’s children, who statistically have more cavities than kids in communities with fluoridated water. And it’s no wonder, since Utah now has one of the lowest if not the lowest percentage of fluoridated water of any state in the nation.
Proponents also contend that having a uniform amount of fluoride in water supplies will actually decrease the chances of anyone overdosing on the substance.
But don’t expect to hear Tidwell and Beck argue these points with their counterparts in public.
Beck, who vigorously fought to get fluoride on the ballot this year in Davis County, says some of the anti-fluoride ringleaders are vocal because they have a personal vendetta.
“Their own children were overdosed on fluoride supplements and had fluorosis of the teeth,” she says. “They’re kind of scared. . . . I don’t know if they are conspiracy theorists and they think someone is out to get them. My guess is that they are adamantly against a lot of things.”
One of the state’s most active fluoride opponents, Rae Howard, who is founder and president of the Health Forum of Utah, makes no secret of the fact she has children with fluorosis.
At a Legislative interim meeting earlier this month, Howard showed committee members a close-up picture of teeth that were discolored as a result of fluorosis.
“This looks good compared to (my son’s) teeth,” Howard said.
She says she only wants the public to know the truth about fluoridation. She says that local health boards are giving outdated and incorrect information.
And Howard’s no stranger to the political process. Along with her involvement with Health Forum and Citizens for Safe Drinking Water, the Highland resident has been involved as a Washington lobbyist for years. She worked with Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, on writing and passing the Dietary Supplement Health in Education Act in 1994 and is in the process of requesting a congressional hearing on fluoridation.
“I’m not a conspirator hanging on the right fringes,” she says. Howard’s organization has more than 3,000 members statewide who are all against fluoride.
Minervini also says her views are not far out. She is a former dental hygienist who practiced for 26 years and started Utah’s chapter of Citizens for Safe Drinking Water in 1998 when Davis and Salt Lake counties came close to putting fluoride on the ballot. She says there are thousands of Utahns who are against it and they need some organization to serve as a home base.
Proponents are somewhat baffled that a dental hygienist would be opposed to fluoridation, considering numerous dentists throughout the state endorse the idea.
“I know what dental professionals are taught,” Minervini says. “But with all science there comes advances, and the practice of fluoridation never changed since 1945. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize something is not right.”
And she says she not alone in her profession.
“I know of at least a dozen dental hygienists in Utah who oppose fluoridation. Unfortunately, in fear of losing their jobs, they will not speak out.”
Some members of the opposition do speak out. In July, a hostile message was left on Davis County Commissioner Carol Page’s answering machine following the commission’s vote to put the issue on November’s ballot. The male caller typified Davis County commissioners as “bozos,” “flaming idiots” and “scumbags” and said he wanted to get them out of office. Page said she has not received any other angry calls, but that one was upsetting and shows how passionate some members of the opposition can be.
Beck says the high emotions and unpredictability of the opposition are other reasons she will not consider a public debate.
Tidwell agrees, saying a debate would only give the groups credibility that they don’t deserve.
But board of health members refusing to debate won’t stop Howard and Minervini.
“There will be a public debate. If I have to put an empty chair up there with a name on it, there will be a public debate,” she said. “Since we both want to do what’s best for the public, why don’t we sit down and talk about it? . . . I think they’re going to be sorry later.”
Howard and Minervini say proponents act as if they are scared to match up their statistics against those of the opposition in a public forum.
Howard has repeatedly requested the Davis County Board of Health to provide documentation for some of the statistics that they push concerning where Utah sits in the national dental health arena, including statistics pointing to a staggering number of cavities, and dental practices in the state.
“They won’t send them. We send a letter to remind them and they don’t send them,” she says.
Beck says she has received the letters and admits she has chosen to ignore them.
“I don’t think I owe it to her, and any word I would say she would turn around. I would not want to correspond with her,” Beck says. “She threatens to ‘expose’ me and all that stuff.”