Is it safe?
That is the question that has been posed to the tens of thousands of Fort Collins area residents who drink tap water treated with fluoride.
While advocates of placing the cavity-fighting substance in the city’s water supply say it promotes dental health, especially for residents who have trouble affording dental care, opponents say constant exposure to fluoride poses an unreasonable health gamble in an era when fluoride is readily available in toothpaste.
Earlier this month, the city’s nine-member Fluoride Technical Study Group looked into the Water Board’s 2001 assertion that the liquid form of fluoride added to water — hydrofluorosilicic acid, or HFS — posed enough risk to justify discontinuing its use.
The group’s findings tend to indicate fluoride is effective and poses little risk to the public. The group found that fluoridated water leads to as much as a 25 percent average reduction in cavities and HFS does not pose a significant health risk for cancer and other conditions, including dental fluorisis, which can weaken teeth, and skeletal fluorisis, a crippling bone disease like arthritis caused by an excess of fluoride.
However, the report noted a lack of direct research pertaining to HFS.
That has made the findings the center of contention, with those opposed to fluoridation charging that the conclusion appeared to justify the status quo rather than focus on concern for public health.
During a public meeting Monday, a majority of those who spoke to the report’s findings said fluoridation should be discontinued.
Opponents testified HFS is a byproduct of the fertilizer industry and so dangerous that its containers are required to include the warning “danger poison” to ensure the safety of handlers.
Pati Caputto, a certified nutritionist and member of Fluoride Facts, a group whose members carry red paper stop signs with a slash through the word “Fluoride,” said the report was incomplete.
“There is a huge gap of knowledge about this issue,” she said. “There are a lot of uncertainties here.”
The Poudre Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club also has joined the opposition on the grounds it would cost the city $500,000 to update fluoride storage tanks and because the National Toxicology Program wants research done on HFS since little is known about its health effects.
However, other notable groups favor the continued use of HFS, including the Larimer County Dental Society.
Greg Evans, a liaison for the society, who also is a member of the technical group, predicts an 18 percent increase in cavities if the city removes fluoride from the water.
He said the area’s 7,000 Medicaid patients probably would each see an average of one more cavity than with fluoridated water. At a cost of about $100 per cavity, that could garner a potential $700,000 price tag, a lot compared with the $56,000 the city pays each year for fluoride, he said.
Karl Carson, a former city mayor and dentist who practiced in Fort Collins from 1951 to 1994, said he fought for 13 years in the late 1950s and 1960s to pose the fluoride question to voters. After voters approved adding fluoride to the water in 1967, Carson said he noticed a reduction in cavities among his patients.
“There was a definite improvement,” he said. “It was obvious that it made a difference in reducing cavities in children.”
But Edward Carr, a chiropractor and member of the technical study group, said there was enough evidence in the report to lead people to at least think twice about the benefits HFS in the water.
“There are a lot of unknowns and uncertainties,” he said. “I would hope the public would recognize the limits of scientific information and gaps in data where we can’t say for 100 percent certain that it is safe.”
Roger Masters, a Dartmouth College professor of government who runs a foundation that studies neurotoxicology in New Hampshire, worries the technical group, which cited a study he conducted on the effects of HFS on health and behavior, did not heed his most dramatic conclusions.
“The study shows that there is a rise in crime and substance abuse associated with fluoridated water,” he said.
Masters’ research — meant, he said, to spur more research on HFS — studied links between the substance and lead poisoning in 430,000 children. Lead, he said, is a factor in lower test scores in children and higher incidence of violent crime.
The report, however, failed to see the link: The addition of HFS to water does not increase water contaminants such as copper, manganese, zinc, cadmium, nickel or molybdenum.
Evans is highly critical of Masters’ work.
“He did not take into account myriad other explanations for an increase in lead,” Evans said. “It could have been due to any other environmental factors, such as housing. … It is very poor science.”
Masters retorts that he adjusted for variances, including environmental factors such as lead-based paint in housing.
After tonight’s public-comment session, the Water Board will issue an advisory opinion to the City Council.
The board of directors for the Health District of Northern Larimer County, responsible for providing dental services to low-income qualified residents, also is expected to take an advisory stand, spokesman Richard Cox said.
Whatever the council decides, it won’t eradicate fluoride from the Fort Collins area.
Patty Bigner, of the city’s Utilities Department, said other water districts are not considering the elimination of fluoride, meaning HFS would not be removed from all Fort Collins taps.