It really doesn’t matter that fluoridated water has been hailed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as one of the 10 greatest public health achievements of the 20th century, reducing cavities for pennies on the dollar by 30 to 60 percent in children and 20 to 40 percent in adults. Nor does the long, highly credentialed list of local fluoride proponents who swear that the substance is imperative for poor kids who have never been to a dentist. Despite the claims of their reasoned opposition, a number of Arcatans are still convinced that fluoridated tap water is not the wonder drug it has long been chalked up to be.
Step inside New World Water, Jim Tobin’s Northtown Arcata store, and it becomes clear that fluoride-phobia is not just some backwoods conspiracy cooked up by fringe lunatics. This business is located on prime real estate and successfully hawking water and water paraphernalia.
On the right wall of the shop, beyond an array of filters and water bottles, a large metal tank hums loudly, churning through a seven-stage filtration cycle that eliminates impurities from the city’s tap water. The machine cleans 600 gallons of water a week. Tobin, a skinny man with tinted glasses and shaggy hair, opens a plastic index card file containing all his client information listed alphabetically — about 200 people, he estimates. Many of his customers come specifically for fluoride-free water. Filtering the chemical requires reverse osmosis, and the equipment needed for the job is expensive and the process is time- and energy-intensive.
Seeing as he makes his living, in part, purifying Arcata’s drinking water, you’d think Tobin would rejoice in the fact that public water is a little tainted. But he doesn’t. In fact he finds that notion offensive and he points to the neatly arranged papers on the counter to prove it.
Tobin is a supporter of Measure W, and he keeps campaign literature on display in his shop. The ballot initiative was floated by the Arcata Citizens for Safe Drinking Water to force the City of Arcata to stop adding substances to medicate the public — read: Fluoride — rather than clean the water, like chlorine does. Tobin considers voting for Measure W a moral obligation to his neighbors. Besides, he said, “People who don’t want the rest of the junk [in their tap water] will keep coming to me.” (The other “junk” includes small amounts of chlorine, haloacetic acids, lead, barium and iron, some of which are naturally occurring.)
Among his pro-Measure W paperwork is a somewhat rambling 600-word missive entitled “Measure W Answers Questions Not Continues Them,” detailing Tobin’s personal opinions on the matter.
“Measure W will help answer all these questions about the current additive fluoride,” the essay reads. “A second great part of the measure is that it will also establish criteria for safety should anyone get the idea to add something else, like a vaccine or whatever.”
The initiative would effectively stop fluoridation until the chemical is approved as safe and effective by the federal Food and Drug Administration. Opponents of fluoride believe that the drug has too many potential risks, including cancer, kidney disease, diminished intelligence and fluorosis, a discoloration of teeth due to excessive consumption of the chemical, which is also found in food and in some bottled water.
So who’s against Measure W? To name a few, Humboldt County Public Health Officer Ann Lindsay, Humboldt County Dental Society, Humboldt-Del Norte County Medical Society, Six Rivers Dental Hygienist Association, Humboldt Child Care Council and Open Door Health Centers. There are almost 300 backers of the “No” campaign, including 51 doctors, 44 dentists and a number of other health professionals. Most area politicians, including current Arcata City Council members and nine former Arcata mayors, are also pro-fluoride. (In 2004, when the issue was first brought to the City of Arcata, Councilman Dave Meserve, well-known for his left-leaning politics, had concerns about fluoridated water, but has since thrown his support behind the No on W camp, saying the measure should have made provisions for fluoride drops or varnishes for children.)
In other words, Measure W has big opposition with big credentials. Most of them believe that fluorosis can be a cosmetic problem, but that health risks like cancer are only found at extremely high levels of fluoride exposure.
But supporters of the initiative are undeterred and confident the initiative will succeed at the polls. They gathered 1,800 signatures to put the issue on the ballot, and they say many more people support their efforts, if not from fears of fluoride then because the idea of mass medication unnerves and offends them.
And as for the undeniable clout of their opponents, the wide-held belief among antifluoridationists nationwide — and there are a growing number of U.S. municipalities taking up the issue and others that have already passed anti-fluoride measures — is that the medical establishment is simply regurgitating fluoride propaganda passed down to them by docs and dentists of the 1950s without scrutinizing its validity or safety today. The American Dental Society first began advocating for fluoride after World War II.
“My honest opinion is that after 50 years of being pro-fluoride their belief has become quasi-religious,” said Arcata resident Bruce LeBel. A central figure of the local anti-fluoride camp, LeBel said the issue is not solely about fluoride, but about better regulation of drugs injected into the water supply. If the FDA tests the water and says it’s safe, then LeBel would be satisfied.
But the FDA has no jurisdiction over tap water — the U.S Environmental Protection Agency does. The public health goal for fluoride is one milligram per liter (1 ppm) and Arcata averages just below that at .93 ppm. It’s roughly the equivalent of one drop of gas in an automobile’s gas tank. According to Dr. Brian Smith, an Arcata dentist, over 6,000 pounds of sodium fluoride was added to Arcata’s drinking water in 2004, at a cost of $5,000. An additional $16,000 is needed to maintain the fluoride delivery system.
What concerns people like Bruce LeBel most is that sodium fluoride is known to be contaminated with small amounts of arsenic, lead and mercury. The city, however, has never found detectable levels of arsenic or mercury in the city’s tap, but LeBel worries it is still in the water in trace amounts that could be dangerous over time. Lead, which the city says enters the water supply through old plumbing, natural deposits and leeching from wood preservatives, has tested at far below maximum contaminant levels.
Unlike most of his peers, Dr. Smith supports Measure W. The Eureka dentist says he sees no evidence in his practice that kids from unfluoridated areas like McKinleyville have worse teeth than kids from Eureka or Arcata. Smith, who lives in fluoridated Bayside, believes mounting evidence shows fluoride is more toxic than previously believed. He does not let his toddler drink tap water and buys locally bottled water instead.
Smith said other local dentists would like to see fluoride taken out of Arcata’s drinking water but won’t come forward for fear of backlash. It seems anyone against fluoride is viewed as anti-child.
“I see many kids from all surrounding communities and in most kids, across the board, I see signs of not only potential damage from fluorosis but tooth decay and gum disease,” Smith said. “I have a lot of concerns about children’s health.”
Measure W supporter and sometime spokesperson Janene Hilliard of Arcata, whose son grew up drinking Arcata’s water and now has fluorosis, agrees with Smith, who is her dentist.
“The last thing I want to do is hurt the poor kids,” she said. “I think that giving them a toxin that is not FDA approved and have it be something they drink day in and day out is wrong. It should be a civil right to not be drugged against your will.”
Wendy Ring, medical director of the Mobile Medical Office, visits poor and homeless patients across the county. She says that she sees the difference between people’s teeth in towns like Arcata and Eureka, which fluoridate their water, and Loleta and Rio Dell, which don’t. (Thirty-five percent of the county is fluoridated.) She prescribes fluoride drops to children from those and other unfluoridated towns, or paints a fluoride varnish on their teeth.
“It is a bad scene in the county for dental care. We already have more kids with cavities than dentists to take care of them,” she said, adding that waiting lists can be up to a year long. “I’m a big fan of fluoride because I’m a big fan of prevention. Prevention always trumps fixing something after it is broken.”
Ring says she is simply not convinced that the level of fluoride in the water is harmful. She has asked her opponents to show her complete scientific studies to prove their claim and they have not delivered.
“Look at all the people who are working on No on W; you have the county public health officer, pediatricians, lots of doctors,” she said. “I don’t think we are all people who are just hoodwinked. Certainly for myself, I am always fairly skeptical and I really do like to get down to science.”
But Elizabeth MacKay, one of the early supporters of the ballot initiative says the medical community is not taking her group’s worries seriously.
“Anyone who questions water fluoridation is considered a quack,” she said, “when quite honestly, anyone who would not question adding possible contaminants and substandard medications into the water system, to me … I question them.”