The opinion on fluoride in water supplies is as varied as there are personalities in the world. Those who endorse its use often cite the mineral’s ability to prevent tooth decay, while opponents claim the benefit is minimal and that ingestion can actually cause harm to the body.
With the varying amount of information available, there doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut, definitive answer to the question: To fluorinate or not to fluorinate?
It’s the same question the St. Robert Board of Alderman is asking now, and at its meeting Tuesday night, the board agreed it’s a question best left up to residents to answer.
DISCOVERING AN ELEMENT
The history of fluoride dates back to the early 1900s, when a Colorado dentist tried to determine why people’s teeth in the Pikes Peak area were brown, although they had fewer cavities on average.
The answer was fluoride — a substance that occurs naturally in water supplies and when present in high concentrations can cause discoloration of the teeth.
Many years later, separate studies concluded that fluorinating water at a low concentration is enough to prevent tooth decay without causing the browning effect.
In 1945, federal scientists began a long-term study on four communities to examine the effect of fluorinated water. Before the studies could ever be published, however, other cities across the United States began adding fluoride to their water supply.
Today, more than 144 million people are exposed to fluoride through public water supply, though it is present in some bottled water and other beverages, as well as some food. And one only has to walk down the dental care aisle at the local store to see toothpastes, mouthwashes and supplements that contain the decay-fighting substance.
ST. ROBERT’S CHOICE
In 1981, St. Robert residents were asked whether they’d be in favor of adding fluoride to the city’s water system. Results showed 61 residents said “yes”, 50 said “no” and 11 had “no opinion”. The issue was then presented to the Board of Aldermen, who decided to begin the program.
Today, it costs nearly $14,000 to fluorinate the city’s water supply. Surrounding communities, including Waynesville and Richland, also add the element to their water, though Crocker and Dixon do not.
And while there is no federal requirement that cities fluorinate water, there seems to be a consensus that one day, chlorination will be required.
“Over the past number of years, there’s always been the thought we’d have to turn to chlorination of the water,” said Public Works Director Lyle Thomas, explaining that while $14,000 may not seem like a large sum of money when compared to the entire budget, it is an amount that could save the city in the future. “If we don’t need it (fluorinated water), then we should discontinue the use.”
Additionally, adding the element to the water supply costs about $3,200 in repairs and new equipment annually, Thomas said, noting that three fluoride pumps are usually replaced each year because the element is corrosive.
As for the well houses where fluoride is being added, some damage to the structure has already become apparent and will have to be repaired in the future. The damage, due largely in part to the element eating through lines and dripping on to the concrete, has taken some time to show up.
“It’s not due to lack of maintenance in the well houses. It’s inherent,” Thomas said of the damage.
If citizens decide to halt the practice of adding fluoride to water, the funds saved will be utilized to offset the cost of chlorination gear and equipment.
Steve Long, Public Works foreman, said preparing for the future can only help the city.
“It’s going to be less of an impact on the budget and the community,” Long said. “Sometime in the future it will be mandatory for us to chlorinate, we will not be mandated to fluorinate.”
Thomas agreed, saying, “With $14,000, we can buy equipment or safety equipment to go along with these chlorine rooms.”
The department is working on getting chlorination systems in place. Two well houses have the positive retention systems already, all that is needed in those buildings is the separate room. A well house located by Cracker Barrel on St. Robert Boulevard will have the chlorine room added to it, and an old wooden well house on Highway Z will be rebuilt with a chlorination room.
Currently, fluoride is the only substance added to St. Robert’s water. When chlorination comes into play, the chemical will help disinfect the water supply.
Thomas noted that if a water main breaks today on the north side of Interstate 44, the health department could tell businesses in that area they can’t serve tap water, for fear of contaminants getting into the water supply. Chlorination would help prevent that from happening, and Long noted that the city has “shocked” the system before for such an occurrence.
“People are concerned about what’s in their water,” Thomas said, recognizing the validity of people’s questions
“I live in the community. I know that it’s safe to drink,” he said.
Today, the question begs to be asked: How many people are even drinking water straight from the tap?
The Beverage Market Corporation reports that bottle water consumption increased nearly 70 percent between 2000 and 2007. Though some bottled water contains fluoride, it is not the norm. Manufactures are required to include fluoride as an ingredient, if it is present.
And don’t forget those who filter their tap water before consuming it. Long noted that many, although not all, residential water filter systems remove fluoride along with other elements.
Access to better dental care also plays a role. While some rural areas still exist where dental hygiene is not readily available, many more people can find, and afford, basic dental checkups.
A growing body of evidence also suggests that direct application of fluoride to the teeth — such as brushing twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste, results in the greatest benefit, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
In the end, it will be up to residents to decide the benefits or disadvantages of having fluoride in the water.
The city will be releasing a survey sometime in the future to determine, based on resident response, whether it should continue or discontinue the program.