When it comes to water quality, the people of Juneau are among the most informed in the state. Residents of the capital recently voted to ban fluoride from their water.
Clean-water advocates succeeded (61 to 37 percent) despite the American Dental Association spending more than $150,000 to promote its mass medication scheme. The homegrown defenders spent less than $5,000.
The lopsided total shows that 50 years of government safety assurances cannot hold back the tide of new science on fluoride. The election also is symbolic of what a small group of people can do when they decide to organize.
Following Juneau’s successful effort to keep its water pure, a group has formed in Fairbanks to do the same. We expect to build on Juneau’s achievement, however, getting out the facts about fluoride may require a different approach. There are multiple water sources in Fairbanks; many people have private wells or don’t know that their water contains fluoride. People outside the city, but connected to city water don’t have equal representation.
We know that the Fairbanks water utility (owned in part by Sen. Gary Wilken) annually dumps about 7,300 pounds of fluoride into the distribution system. After passing through our bodies and the sewer plant, more than 99 percent is flushed into the Tanana River. It has been this way for more than 50 years. Among the challenges we face is convincing folks that the old way of doing things may not be the best way.
Most people are initially suspicious when they hear that most of the fluoride in domestic water begins as waste scraped from exhaust stacks of fertilizer and aluminum factories; or that most European countries ban fluoride; and that the chemical is linked to a host of diseases, including thyroid and endocrine dysfunction, kidney disease, increased risk of bone fracture and osteosarcoma in boys.
What seems to catch their attention is data developed by fisheries biologists working at dams on the Columbia River. According to the research, salmon exposed to fluoride from industrial outfalls became lethargic and confused. They failed to climb fish ladders, spending up to a week in collection basins, where injuries and deaths increased. When fluoride sources were reduced, salmon moved past the dam without delay.
After people get a chance to look at the science, suspicion usually turns to anger. This is especially so when people learn about the ADA’s 2006 directive about mixing baby formula. In a move apparently designed to cover its posterior, the ADA urged mothers to avoid fluoridated tap water when preparing infant formula. Distributed as a press release, most families did not get the memo.
In nonfluoridated communities, the level of fluoride in mothers milk is 0.004 parts per million. This means babies fed formula made with fluoridated tap water (at 1 ppm) get 250 times more fluoride than a breast fed baby. Can you say overdose?
Consider the government’s paradoxical policy on fluoride. Toothpaste carries a poison warning while the U.S. Public Health Service and the Centers for Disease Control call fluoride a major health achievement and promote its adoption. Yet at the same time the CDC acknowledges that whatever small benefit fluoride might offer teeth it happens only when it’s applied directly to the enamel. The agency says that drinking fluoride laced water is at best a waste; fluoride’s desired effects are from topical applications, not systemic.
News of fluoride’s unintended consequences arrives almost daily. Today we learn from a paper in the September issue of NeuroToxicology that fluoride in various combinations with chlorinating chemicals and ammonia increases the release of lead from leaded brass fittings used in water pipes.
Tests showed that lead concentrations climbed to more than 900 parts per billion. The implications being that more than 60 percent of the country has been drinking water and manufacturing products spiked with high levels of lead. Chiefly known for its negative effect on childhood IQ, many toxicologists say there is no safe level for lead. This may account for the some of the statements Europeans are making about American intelligence.
The campaign Juneau started deserves to go statewide; fluoride-free should be adopted by sustainability advocates for its enhancement of salmon and critical thinking.
• Douglas Yates is a writer from Ester whose interests include water quality.