Thirty years after the Brainerd City Council ended its long fight against state-mandated fluoridation Mayor James Wallin makes a weekly trek to an unfluoridated city tap for drinking water. He won’t drink the city’s fluoridated water, labeling it a health threat.
“The stuff is extremely hazardous and poisonous,” Wallin said of his city’s fluoridated water Thursday. “To me, it’s a poison.”
Wallin is one of three current council members who were key players in the controversy that dominated much of Brainerd’s politics in the 1960s and 1970s. Council members Mary Koep and Wallin were among five council members who were found in contempt of court in October of 1979 for refusing to fluoridate the water. Council member Bob Olson was a proponent of fluoridation who claimed his stand cost him his council seat in the 1977 election.
The city’s water supply was fluoridated at 11 a.m. Feb. 7, 1980 – 30 years ago. Jimmy Carter was president. Al Quie was Minnesota’s governor. Bud Grant was the Vikings coach. And the Metrodome hadn’t been built yet.
To newer residents of the city the fluoride controversy may be ancient history but Koep, Olson and Wallin remember the strong feelings the issue caused at the time.
“My stand on fluoride cost me an election,” Olson said, referring to the 1977 contest in which Wallin replaced Olson on the council. “What bothered me is that fluoride sort of dominated all other issues.”
Wallin’s first reaction to Olson’s claim that fluoride was the determining factor in that election was a negative one. He later amended that response to say that fluoride might have been a part of the reason for his election.
Olson, who owned Hardware Hank during his first stint on the council, said people had very bitter feelings on the issue but he didn’t think it seriously affected his business.
“I was always able to feed my family,” Olson said. “I wasn’t popular with the anti-fluoride group. It became very personal and very political.”
Koep said she thought Irene Johnson, the Minnesotans Opposed to Forced Fluoridation leader, and Jack Graham, the city’s special counsel on fluoridation issues, felt a lot of bitterness regarding their lost battle.
In her own experience, Koep said pro-fluoride people expressed their differing viewpoints with her but she never felt any malice.
“I never felt I had any bitterness expressed to me,” Koep said.
When she attended state conferences with other civic officials Koep said the reactions of other people ranged from good-natured ribbing to admiration for fighting the state’s mandatory law.
Koep said she was never satisfied the state provided sufficient data regarding the potential long-term effects of fluoride but her main reason for opposing it was that Brainerd voters had rejected the plan twice in non-binding votes.
“A lot of people didn’t like the heavy hand of the state,” she said.
Koep drinks the city’s water but said that after 30 years she’s still not convinced the state’s position – that the fluoride was beneficial rather than harmful and that there were no detrimental long-term effects – was correct.
“I honestly don’t know,” she said. “How would I know?”
All three council members agreed fluoride opponent Johnson was a driving force in the city’s long struggle against the state.
“She certainly deserves the blame or credit, whatever your position is,” Koep said. “She ate, slept and breathed that battle for many years. She often spoke of it (fluoride) as rat poison. She believed not only that it was dangerous but that it was wrong for the state to use its power that way.”
Olson described the mood in the early days of the fluoride fight as feisty, however he said he and Johnson, who died in 2001, resolved their differences. Olson later appointed Johnson to the Brainerd Water and Light Board. A north Brainerd resident, Olson served on the council before and after the city’s water was fluoridated but was not on it when the fluoridation switch was flicked.
“Irene was a person with strong convictions,” he said. “She believed in what she was doing.”
Wallin said her dedication to the anti-fluoride cause bordered on an obsession.
“She was very adamant in her beliefs,” Wallin said.
The three current council members also reflected on two other major players in the fluoride fight, attorney Graham, who now lives in Canada, and pro-fluoride dentist Jack Echternacht, who died in 2006 at the age of 88.
Graham was the right choice as the city’s special counsel, said Wallin.
“He tried his best to represent the council in this matter,” the mayor said.
Olson said he thought Graham believed in what he was doing but there was disagreement between the two of them on the actual facts regarding fluoride.
“But Jack and I got along,” Olson said. “I like Jack.”
Koep recalled that it was Graham who eventually advised the council to comply with the state law after court actions threatened them with monetary penalties for being in contempt of court. She also noted he donated his time to the city during the long legal struggle.
She said Graham was sometimes branded as “goofy” on the issue of fluoride but that wasn’t the case. He spelled out all the legal options for the council, Koep said.
“He was always extremely cautious,” she recalled.
Echternacht was remembered by Olson as an individual who had strong convictions and who might even be considered stubborn. He was a driving force in the pro-fluoride movement, Koep said. Wallin began seeing Echternacht as a 4-year-old patient and continued to see him despite their differences on fluoride.
“I respected his opinion,” Wallin said.
Olson said he favored fluoridating the water to improve the dental health of Brainerd’s children.
“I’m supporting the children who can’t vote,” he would tell people. He said the anti-fluoride people used scare tactics.
“Show me the evidence this is harmful to your health,” Olson said. “There’s nobody dying in the street.”
Olson said the Brainerd Dispatch was basically in the anti-fluoride camp, noting the Minnesota News Council agreed on several points with a complaint that was filed regarding the newspaper’s letters to the editor policy.
He also faulted the state for not cracking down on Brainerd earlier for not complying with the mandatory fluoridation law.
“I blame the state,” Olson said. “They dragged their feet way too long before they forced the issue.”
He said he was glad the controversy regarding fluoride is over.
“It didn’t do the city any good,” Olson said.
Wallin, however, continues to be “vehemently opposed” to fluoridation and said he wasn’t done yet in terms of protesting its use. He noted that many European nations that once fluoridated water have stopped doing so.
“It’s a poison,” he said. “It’s not good for anybody.”
Koep has no regrets about the council’s long fight. She said it did the right thing in respecting what Brainerd voters had said they wanted in non-binding referendums.
“My major concern was the fact that the people had spoken and we were being asked to ignore it,” she said. “I frankly still think that was wrong.”
She said she heard mostly positive feedback about Brainerd’s fight against the state and wasn’t concerned about the council’s stance projecting a negative image.
“If it was backward to try to represent your people then let’s be backward,” she said explaining her stance.