Amid yelps of “you’re murderers” and “you’re hurting the kids,” two Austin City Council committees decided they didn’t buy claims that fluoridating drinking water does little to prevent tooth decay and poses health risks.
The council’s Public Utilities Committee and Health and Human Services Committee took no action Wednesday on a resolution calling for the end of water fluoridation by December, which means the proposal dies before making it to the full City Council.
Council Member Don Zimmerman, who offered the resolution, made a motion to have the issue advance to the full council with no recommendation, but he couldn’t get a second. Zimmerman said during the meeting he was “looking for cost savings in our budget.”
“The question of effectiveness and proof that we’re getting our money’s worth is very, very important to my decision,” Zimmerman said. He was looking for science to hang his hat on, Zimmerman said, but it’s tough to separate the effects of fluoride on tooth decay from other factors, such as lifestyle and toothpaste use.
But a panel of public health officials and dentists told Zimmerman and the other committee members that there’s a vast body of scientific research that says fluoridating drinking water is one of the best ways to combat tooth decay — the most common chronic disease among children and adolescents — and that it provides benefits on top of those that come with using fluoridated toothpaste.
Fluoridated drinking water can lead to mild fluorosis, which is spotting or lacy marks on teeth, but not severe forms of the condition, which in rare cases appears as rough surfaces on the teeth.
Nancy Reed of Fluoride Free Austin holds a sign Wednesday while listening at a committee hearing at City Hall about the fluoridation of Austin’s drinking water.
Acknowledging that fluoride is effective in preventing tooth decay, Council Member Delia Garza posed this question to a local anti-fluoride dentist: “What’s the alternative if it’s not in the water?”
The dentist, Dr. Griffin Cole, said his two children don’t consume fluoridated water on his watch — his house has a “state of the art” filtration system — but they clean their teeth and they have a sound diet. They have no cavities, he said.
That made Council Member Ora Houston bristle. “When you try to compare how your life might be and how other children’s lives might be, I don’t think that’s a very fair comparison,” she said. “I don’t think we have a standard of living at this point in our city where we can make those assumptions for people.”
Houston had asked earlier in the meeting why fluoride detractors didn’t attempt to get an item about water fluoridation on the ballot. If a valid petition with 20,000 signatures was presented to the City Council, the council could either decide to end water fluoridation or call a referendum on the issue.
Council Member Ann Kitchen threw her support behind fluoridation, saying, “I have to tell you that I support continued community water fluoridation. The risk to our children is much, much greater without having community water fluoridation.”
Anti-fluoride advocates launched a bevy of criticisms at the practice of adding fluoride to drinking water, saying it causes thyroid issues and cancer, is linked to lower IQ and higher rates of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, that “God did not intend for fluoride to be in your body,” and that it’s a waste of taxpayer money.
Dr. Philip Huang, medical director and health authority for the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department, said fluoride opponents use “cherry-picked data” and “scare tactics.”
Dr. Philip Huang, medical director and health authority for the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department, warned council members that they would hear “cherry-picked data” and “scare tactics” from fluoride opponents.
“What you have to do, really, is look at the full weight of the scientific evidence, for and against, and review it in an objective, systematic process,” Huang said.
Fluoridating Austin’s water cost $339,725.89, or 38 cents a person, in the 2013-14 city budget year. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found every $1 spent on fluoridation saves about $38 per year in dental costs.
Austin began adding fluoride to drinking water in 1973, after the public supported doing so in a 1972 vote.
Though cities large and small, from Portland, Ore., to College Station, have decided in recent years against fluoridating water, more than two-thirds of Americans drink water that is fluoridated.
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