Kalama City Council member Mary Putka grew up in Portland, where battles over water fluoridation raged for decades. Now, that same debate has bubbled up in her new city.
It’s like a “bad dream,” she said. “It just came out of the blue.”
Putka, who acknowledges that she typically is a quiet voice on the council, said she “couldn’t sit back on this one,” calling the effort to remove fluoride “rash and mostly rogue.”
But Mayor Pete Poulsen, the city’s former long-time city water manager who sparked the fluoride discussion several months ago, said the additive has long made him uneasy.
“It did always disturb me when I had a bag that had a skull and cross bones on it and (said), ‘Don’t breathe it, don’t get it on your skin,’ ” Poulsen said. “That always disturbed me dumping the stuff into the system.”
The controversy has made the city the target of worldwide interest.
“Every kind of person from Nobel prize laureates, to dentists, to the average person,” Poulsen said. “It’s quite interesting that it has stirred quite a controversy.”
The City Council will discuss fluoride during a public hearing— and possibly vote to remove it from the city’s water — at its regular meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Kalama City Hall, 320 North First St.
Public health agencies such as the U.S. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention have supported adding fluoride to city water supplies as an inexpensive and safe way to dramatically reduce tooth decay.
Cowlitz County Health Officer Jennifer Vines calls fluoridated water one of the “most important public health interventions in the last century.”
The only negatives of fluoridation has been a discoloration and pitting of teeth — called fluorosis — observed in certain stages of tooth development, Vines wrote to the council April 9.
One in five children have some fluorosis, Vines wrote, but in “the vast majority of those cases it is not apparent.” About 1 percent of children with the problem have obvious tooth discoloration, she wrote.
“None of the other health concerns related to fluoride have been verified by rigorous scientific scrutiny, despite generations of people consuming fluoridated water,” Vines said. “Concerns about negative health effects are not a valid reason to remove fluoride from your city’s water.”
Critics of fluoride don’t generally link it to specific diseases, though they claim there’s evidence it damages organs and reduces IQ in children. Many opponents also make civil liberties and social fairness arguments, stating, for example, that use of fluoride breaches an individual’s right to informed consent to medication.
“It’s a hard call,” Poulsen said. “You know, it just comes down to personal feelings, how you feel about any kind of chemicals coming into your body.”
Poulsen said the $8 to $10 per day — about $3,500 annually — it costs Kalama to add fluoride to its water could be better spent elsewhere. He said much of the fluoridated water evaporates or runs down drains, and even less reaches the children it’s intended for.
“If the target area is so small then maybe we should be rethinking how we administer fluoride to the general populace,” Poulsen said. “To just say we’re going to throw fluoride into the water and give everybody the fluoride — well, who’s it really benefiting?”
Vines, the county health officer, said water fluoridation helps children whose parents can’t afford dental care.
And Putka said that fluoride isn’t just for kids.
After drinking Portland’s unfluoridated water for more than 40 years and suffering from dental problems throughout her life, Putka said she hasn’t had a cavity since moving to Kalama in 1991.
“It definitely helps the oral health of an adult as well,” Putka said.
Poulsen, however, argues that proper dental care requires services of a dentist, not fluoride alone, and money might be better spent on dental care.
Kalama has added fluoride to its drinking water since the 1960s. Poulsen said the City of Woodland helped inspire him to raise the issue when it removed fluoride with little public outcry last August.
Kalama sent surveys asking citizens what they thought of fluoridation with recent water bills. Those unscientific surveys show voters split, with 53 percent opposing fluoride and 47 percent supporting it. Putka and Poulsen believe council members may be evenly split as well.
Putka said she hasn’t heard science-based arguments against fluoridation are, and she won’t vote to remove Kalama’s fluoride without support from mainstream institutions like the CDC.
“I always go back to science.”