LITTLE ROCK — A Senate bill to require water systems in Arkansas serving 5,000 or more people to add fluoride to public drinking water cleared a House committee today and heads next to a House vote, the last hurdle before final passage.
The House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee endorsed Senate Bill 359 by Sen. David Johnson, D-Little Rock, in a voice vote. A few “no” votes were heard.
The hearing was held in a packed committee room. Some in the audience wore pro-fluoride stickers, while some opponents of the bill stood in the hallway outside the room holding signs claiming that fluoride is unhealthy.
Opponents also sent thousands of e-mails to legislators and the media in advance of the hearing.
Johnson testified that fluoride builds up tooth enamel and prevents 60 percent of tooth decay in children and 35 percent in adults. American children lose about 51 million hours of school every year because of preventable tooth problems, he said.
The Arkansas State Dental Association and the American Dental Association support fluoridation, Johnson said.
Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Bigelow, testified in support of the bill, comparing opposition to fluoridation to attitudes he has encountered while doing missionary work in west Africa and vaccinating people for polio.
“To my amazement, village elders and some chiefs there would hide their children because they said we were poisoning and going to kill those children. … You can’t demonize something that actually has an opportunity to do some good,” Rapert said.
Rep. Andy Mayberry, R-Hensley, said he had a problem with telling communities what to do. Johnson said he understood that concern, but he said in this case the public good outweighs local control.
Rep. Tracy Pennartz, D-Fort Smith, asked what the start-up cost would be for Fort Smith, the largest Arkansas city that does not fluoridate water. Johnson said it would be between $90,000 and $100,000. Fort Smith voters have twice rejected fluoridation proposals, first the 1970s and again 20 years later.
Pennartz said she was concerned about the cost, and some in the audience applauded. One person shouted, “It’s all about the money!”
Rep. Jon Woods, R-Springdale, vice chairman of the committee, asked the audience to respect the process and not applaud.
Ed Choate, president and CEO of Delta Dental, testified that his company would provide $500,000 to cover start-up costs for the 32 communities that would be affected by the bill.
Rep. Stephanie Malone, R-Fort Smith, noted that Fort Smith alone would need a large portion of that amount. She asked if some communities would have to pick up part of the cost.
“I will commit to you now: If it’s more than $500,000, we will pay it,” Choate said.
James Presley of Friends United for a Safe Environment testified that some fluoride comes from other countries. “They’re sending their toxic waste to our country to put in our water,” he said.
Fort Smith resident John Lavelle testified that the makers of fluoride know that industrially produced fluoride is not the same as naturally occurring fluoride but are lying about it, “just as years ago the tobacco industry pulled the same thing off, misleading the public.”
Rep. John Vines, D-Hot Springs, testified that Hot Springs — the second largest Arkansas community without fluoridation — has voted against fluoridation in the past. He said Hot Springs is known for its waters and wants to protect them.
Vines offered an amendment that would allow Garland County to vote to opt out of fluoridation, but the amendment failed in a voice vote.
After the committee endorsed the bill, Johnson told reporters he was confident about its chances in the House. “I think there’s a lot of enthusiastic support,” he said. “I haven’t counted the numbers, but I think it’s going to