Despite warnings from the city’s water department about an inefficient delivery system and harmful environmental effects, as well as references to studies that fluorinated water can cause bone cancer, the Aspen City Council decided at a work session Monday that fluoride will continue to be added to the city’s water supply.
The council was considering a proposal from the water department to stop adding about 30 pounds of powdered fluoride each day to the water supply, which brings the amount of fluoride in Aspen tap water to about 0.9 or 1.0 parts per million. Aspen water has a natural fluoride concentration of about 0.3 or 0.4.
The council decided that there was not enough “compelling evidence” to reverse 40 years of public policy in Aspen, as the city started adding fluoride to the local water supply in 1967. In 1989, an “advisory vote” of Aspen citizens supported the continued fluoridation of the water supply by a 3-1 margin.
Local dentist David Swersky called water fluoridation the most effective public health policy of our time, short of the invention of the small pox vaccination. He explained how fluoride helps strengthen the chemical bonds that make up tooth enamel and prevent tooth decay. Swersky credited the concentration of fluoride in Aspen’s water with what he said was a particularly low occurrence of tooth decay in Aspen.
Staff from Aspen’s water and environmental health departments brought forward the question of axing fluoride in Aspen’s water. Charles Bailey, of the water department, said that only 1 percent of the fluoride dumped into Aspen’s water makes it to its “target audience,” which is the mouths of people drinking the tap water. Bailey also said the fluoride, which the water department purchases from China, creates a nuisance as it builds up in water department equipment. Also, because of the colder temperatures of Aspen’s water, the fluoride is less soluble, and the equivalent of 1.7 parts per million of fluoride must be added to the water at the water plant to achieve 1.0 parts per million at the tap, Bailey said.
Bailey also raised the issue of potential negative environmental effects of fluoride, which is toxic in high concentrations, on soils and rivers. While council members called the environmental affects an “interesting twist” to the fluoride story, the fact that no data was presented about potential environmental damage made the council reluctant to consider the argument.
The practice of cities putting fluoride into their water supplies, which began 60 years ago in Grand Rapids, Mich., has become more controversial as studies have connected water fluoridation to a higher occurrence of osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer, particularly in males under 20 years old.
Excess fluoridation has also been tied to fluorosis, which causes a breakdown in tooth development.
Tom Lankering, a local chiropractor, presented even more troubling information on fluoride. Specifically, he said the mass fluoridation of the American water supply is tied to undo influence from the aluminum and fertilizer industries, whose processes create fluoride as a byproduct. Lankering used the term “industrial waste.”
“Fluoride is somewhat less toxic than arsenic and more toxic than lead,” Lankering said. “It would be considered poisonous if not for hype.”
Council members identified three separate issues in the fluoride debate. First is the operational issue at the water plant, and the costs associated with an inefficient delivery system. The council directed staff to move forward on making any improvements in this realm, if possible.
The second issue is potential environmental damage that might be taking place because of the 99 percent of Aspen’s fluoride that does not make it down the gullets of citizens. Councilmen, particularly Jack Johnson, identified this as a concern, but no specific direction was given to investigate this further.
On the issue of the pros or cons for public health of fluoride consumption, the council said there is not sufficient consensus in the scientific community to justify a reversal of policy. Council members also said they did not have all the information they needed on the proper amount of fluoride, or how much fluoride people receive through sources other than drinking water, to make an informed decision.
While some studies cry foul on the benefits of consuming fluoride, and in fact identify significant risks, other studies — including from physician trade groups the American Dental Association and the American Medical Association — continue to identify fluoride consumption as a major public health boon because of its effects to stem tooth decay. Diane Brunson, of the Colorado Department of Public Health, said that for every dollar spent on water fluoridation, $38 is saved in dental care costs.
While he gave lip service to public weariness over involuntary mass medication, Mayor Mick Ireland was not won over by the anti-fluoride arguments. He also argued against any notion that Aspen’s affluence, and the fact that most children here receive fluoride treatments through dental care, might lead one to conclude that fluoride need not be put in the water.
“I always have to remind people that everyone in Aspen is not affluent,” Ireland said. “I don’t know that everyone in Aspen gets the dental care they need. Some people will be treated systematically or they will not be treated at all.”