Everyone drinks water; everyone drinks what’s in water besides water. But what those other ingredients are is rarely discussed.
Opinions and emotions ran high as health professionals, policymakers, students and other area residents filled the Mountain View Room in UNCA’s [University of North Carolina at Asheville] Sherrill Center Nov. 12, eager to consider one of those other elements: fluoride.
Hosted by the school’s Student Environmental Center, the event brought together two proponents of the long-standing practice of fluoridating water supplies and two people opposed to it to debate the purported benefits and risks.
The four-member panel included: Dr. William Ryals of the Mountain Area Health Education Center and Blue Ridge Community Health Services; Buncombe County Health Director Gibbie Harris; Daniel G. Stockin of the Lillie Center for Scientific Research and Development in Health and Alternative Energy; and Paul Connett, co-author of the book The Case Against Fluoride.
Fluoridation of public water supplies to prevent tooth decay was pioneered in Grand Rapids, Mich., in 1945 and has since been adopted by most communities nationwide. Asheville residents voted to approve it in 1965. Fluoride occurs naturally in water, but according to Stockin, who received the 2011 Albert Burgstahler Scientific Integrity Award for his work to end the practice, the fluoride added to water, toothpastes and salt is a toxic industrial byproduct of the modern aluminum and fertilizer industries.
According to proponents, however, dental caries is one of the most common chronic infectious diseases among children, and studies show that fluoridation substantially reduces the disease in both children and adults. “What we are actually doing,” said Ryals, “is augmenting … the concentration of fluoride that naturally occurs in water and bringing it up to a level that has been found to be maximally therapeutic as it relates to the prevention of caries, but not to a level that is toxic.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has proclaimed community water fluoridation one of the 10 great public-health achievements of the 20th century, and the practice has been endorsed by many professional organizations, including the American Dental Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association.
In recent years, however, a counter movement has emerged.
“Fluoride,” noted Stockin, “is the only thing we add to water to make changes in the human body.” Those changes, he suggested, are not necessarily positive. Dental fluorosis, or the change in the appearance of the tooth enamel as a result of overexposure to fluoride, affects a growing number of people nationwide. “Dental fluorosis is an outer marker of an inner fluoride overdose,” said Stockin. Among American adolescents ages 12 to 15, 41 percent suffer from dental fluorosis. Over time, fluoride can weaken the bone structure and cause skeletal fluorosis (joint stiffness and pain). Additionally it may affect brain, bone and endocrine cells, particularly in bottle-fed infants.
Connett, who has a doctorate in chemistry, deplored the claim that fluoridation is a great achievement in public health, saying, “As a scientist, I am absolutely apalled at the shoddy science … perpetuated by the ADA.”
Each speaker was given a chance to present a position and invited to respond to questions from the audience. And as time began to run out, what had begun as a civilized dialogue morphed into a more heated exchange.
All speakers seemed to agree that individuals should conduct their own research and form their own opinion. It’s important, cautioned Stockin, “not to vent in an ineffective sense” but to “funnel your actions toward a desired end.”
Ryals, meanwhile, told the room that the real issue is care and access to it.
Harris agreed, saying, “There is just not enough service available” and calling on the audience to focus its efforts on prevention. In her closing remarks, she said: “You need to look at the full picture. I am more than willing to look; I will listen. I encourage each of you to do the same.