LITTLE ROCK-A push to require fluoridation of Arkansas water systems serving more than 5,000 people stalled in a Senate committee Wednesday.
The legislation failed to win an endorsement from the Senate Public Education, Welfare and Labor Committee, and the sponsor said he would not bring it before the panel for another vote.
“I feel bad about it because we worked so hard, and we know it’s something that needs to be done,” the sponsor, Rep. Tommy Roebuck, D-Arkadelphia, said after his bill failed on a voice vote after nearly two hours of testimony. “It was probably the idea that we were trying to force the electorate to do something they didn’t want to do.”
Roebuck, a retired dentist, and supporters from the state Health Department, Arkansas State Dental Association and from fluoridated communities and some that would be affected by the bill praised water fluoridation as a safe, cheap and effective way to fight tooth decay and improve dental health, particularly among children.
Fort Smith and Hot Springs would be the largest cities affected by the bill. Roebuck amended the bill Wednesday to exempt Texarkana, which gets its water from a source on the Texas side.
State Rep. Steve Harrelson, D-Texarkana, understood it was a contentious issue with his constituents, seeing as how Texarkana, Ark., overwhelmingly voted down the measure several years ago.
He originally voted for the bill on the basis that Texarkana would not be affected.
Harrelson said 62 percent of the water in Arkansas is already fluoridated, so for many in Little Rock, it was a non-issue.
One of the main issues though, was that cities didn’t like the bill being mandated on them.
“There are a lot of issues that should be decided on a local level,” said Harrelson. “Personally, I think fluoridation is fine. But I see other people’s points that they don’t want something mandated on them.”
About 62 percent of Arkansans on public water systems currently receive fluoridated water. Many public water systems around the country have been fluoridating their supply for more than half a century because it helps fight tooth decay. Fluoride is the active ingredient in toothpaste.
But while the Arkansas Health Department points to studies that show fluoride reducing decay by up to 60 percent in baby teeth and up to 35 percent in adult teeth, opponents say the difference is too slight to risk possible adverse effects of fluoride.
Dr. Lynn Mouden, director of the Health Department’s Office of Oral Health, cited studies and statistics he said showed fluoridation lowers poor oral health across all demographics and improves productivity. He said it also would save the state money by curbing dental problems among the state’s poor.
“Especially at a time of tight state budgets and competing priorities, nothing is more wasteful than spending Medicaid dollars to repair something that is so easily, safely and inexpensively prevented,” he said.
Mouden decried counter studies that discount the health advantages of fluoridation as “hog wash” and “junk science,” and accused opponents of the bill of using “science fiction, fear and intimidation” to defeat it.
Critics countered with their own studies with descriptions of fluoridation ranging from having little health value to questioning the safety of the chemical to associating fluoridation with increased lead ingestion leading to higher incidences of violent crime.
Roger D. Masters, a research professor at Dartmouth College, said the choice of fluorides used in water fluoridation was important. Sodium fluoride is relatively harmless but that silico-fluorides, more commonly used, could be a dangerous toxic.
“No one knows whether they’re safe,” Masters told the committee. His own research, he said, shows that where there is lead in the environment, it’s more likely absorbed if there is also silico-fluoride in the water.
“Lead has very many harmful effects that cost taxpayers enormous money-rare disabilities, substance abuse, violent crimes,” Masters contended. “Wherever silico-fluoride is in the water, there’s a higher rate of violent crime, taking everything else into consideration.”
Amity Mayor Chester Clark, a dentist, said the bill would usurp his city’s rights and said forced fluoridation would be akin to practicing medicine without a license, but Mayor Bob Reynolds of Harrison spoke for the measure.
Joe Walls, a former water operator in the Kinsey Water District, said he was debilitated with osteoporosis, kidney problems and other ills after being sprayed directly with fluoride, and Gene Allison, a worker with the Carroll-Boone County water system, said he worried about the safety of fluoridation.
Sen. Steve Faris, D-Malvern, said regardless of the other issue, he was concerned about the fundamental right of local communities to decide the issue themselves rather than having government dictate to them.
“What do we mandate next to put in peoples’ bodies?” he said.