Bellingham’s City Club hosted the first public forum Wednesday featuring representatives from both sides of Bellingham’s contentious water fluoridation debate.
Leaders of Bellingham Families for Fluoride and Citizens Against Forced Fluoride shared the podium for a 45-minute discussion and question-and-answer period moderated by Gerald Pumphrey, Bellingham Technical College president.
Both sides hit key points they’ve relied on since the beginning of the campaign. Proponents said fluoridation is a safe, effective and commonly used method to reduce dental decay, while opponents questioned fluoride’s safety and stressed that putting it in the water took away their freedom to decide whether to ingest it.
Curt Smith, a retired dentist who is co-chairman of Bellingham Families for Fluoride, was first to speak, emphasizing that water fluoridation has been common in the United States for 60 years.
“Today,” he said, “about two-thirds of the U.S. population enjoys better health because of fluoridated water.”
Recent surveys of Bellingham third-graders showed they had “rampant decay,” or cavities in seven or more teeth, at three times the rate of youngsters in King County, which is three-fourths fluoridated, Smith said
Poor kids, without dental insurance, don’t have access to good dental care, he said.
“Twenty percent of the kids have 80 percent of the disease,” he said. “We would like to turn that around.”
Smith said putting small amounts of fluoride in the water supply would also help prevent cavities among older adults, for whom dental disease may result in a medical emergency because of other health problems.
Co-chairman Ken Gass, a pediatrician, called public water systems “probably the most-monitored commodity in our country,” and that fluoride would be among more than 40 chemicals that are put in water to make it safe to drink.
“Many of these (chemicals) are quite strong – in the bag,” Gass said.
But opponent Mark Steinberg, a naturopathic physician, said fluoride is different from other chemicals, such as chlorine.
“The risk-benefits are worth it,” Steinberg said about chlorine. “You don’t want an infection.”
But fluoride, he said, is not an essential nutrient, like calcium or magnesium.
“If you don’t get enough vitamin C, you get scurvy,” he said. “If you don’t get fluoride, chances are, nothing will happen.”
Steinberg and chiropractor Terry Poth told the audience that dental decay is a multifaceted problem, best handled by improving dental hygiene, diets and access to dentistry.
And it’s difficult to regulate the amount of fluoride people will get, because they drink different amounts of water, Steinberg said.
“You don’t know how much you’re getting throughout the day,” he said.
“If you want a drug, fine. That’s between you, your doctor and your dentist,” Steinberg said. “Don’t make me consume a drug I don’t want to.”