It might be one of the most contentious debates that current members of the Buffalo City Council will face in their tenure – adding fluoride to the city’s water supply.
Opponents say fluoride can cause neurological disorders and can adversely affect bones and ligaments when ingested. Proponents say it could prevent tooth decay, particularly in children, essentially preventing hundreds of dental procedures and saving thousands of dollars in dental bills.
Dr. Mark Schueler has been one of the most vocal advocates for at least having conversations about adding fluoride to the water supply. Schueler, who is a physician at the Johnson County Healthcare Center and serves as the county’s health officer, approached the city council last year and asked that they consider his request. He approached the city council again at their April 5 meeting, this time requesting a more concrete plan for how the city will tackle the question of fluoride.
Schueler said that earlier in the month, he was working in the emergency room at the Johnson County Healthcare Center. Over the weekend, he saw three people in the emergency room for dental infections. One was 3 years old and the side of her face was swollen.
Schueler started her on antibiotics – 12 hours later, she was back in the emergency room and in pain. He said that it’s almost a daily event to see someone with a dental infection in the emergency room, and that’s a concern. Scheuler questioned whether he’d done enough as the county health officer to ensure that situations like this don’t happen in the future.
“Would this have happened if I had been diligent years ago?” Schueler told the Buffalo City Council.
Schueler’s main concern is the negative effects that come from a lack of fluoride in the city’s water supply. The naturally occurring rate of fluoride in Buffalo’s water supply hovers around 0.03 parts per million, way below the U.S. Department of Health’s recommended amount of 0.7 parts per million.
‘A biased perspective’
In his quest, Schueler has met strong opposition from vocal members of the community, but that hasn’t stopped him. It’s important, he said, as Johnson County has the highest rate of untreated tooth decay in the state.
According to a 2010 Wyoming Department of Health study, the state average for untreated tooth decay is 27.24 percent – it’s nearly double in Johnson County at 41.54 percent.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fluoride is a naturally occurring mineral that protects teeth from tooth decay and can result in fewer cavities, less need for filings and tooth extractions and less pain and suffering from tooth decay. Fluoride re-mineralizes the tooth surfaces, preventing cavities from forming.
The CDC also states that “the safety and effectiveness of community water fluoridation continues to be supported by scientific evidence produced by independent scientists and summarized by panels of experts.”
But not everyone is OK with adding it to the city’s drinking water.
Laura DeMatteis has spent years studying the effects of toxins on the body. She’s been a massage therapist for 30 years and has been in alternative health care for just as long.
“There have been many, many, many studies that have proven that fluoride causes neurological disorders and behavior issues,” DeMatteis said. “It’s a neurotoxin. It’s a chemical added to the water that causes a lot of problems.”
She’s nervous about the potential of fluoride being adding to the city of Buffalo’s drinking water, and she’s part of a grassroots movement to stop that possibility. A group has been formed on Facebook called Safe Water Buffalo. It’s in its infancy, DeMatteis said, but it’s growing. Members of the group are also on the city’s agenda for the May 17 city meeting.
DeMatteis’ main concern with fluoride is that she believes when it’s ingested, it negatively affects the bones and ligaments in the body.
Schueler said it’s a matter of dose.
“There’s a strong internet propaganda machine organized against fluoride,” Schueler said. “It’s presenting a biased perspective, and there’s a political agenda. It can be challenging to interpret scientific literature. It’s overwhelming the system with technical jargon, and it’s challenging to do our own research.”
Schueler said there are a lot of things that can kill people at a high dose, but he said that adding fluoride at the proposed rate would not be harmful.
“You would be more harmed by consuming that much water than you would by the fluoride,” Schueler said.
In higher doses, fluoride has been shown to cause dental fluorosis, which changes the appearance of the tooth’s enamel. It occurs when children consume too much fluoride over long periods of time when the teeth are developing under the gums, according to the CDC. Schueler said that’s why the recommended amount of fluoride in water has been lowered, but it’s also provided fuel for opponents of fluoridated water systems.
“They make it seem as though it’s a poison and damaging, when it really just means we’ve learned more and have better guidelines,” he said.
‘A lot of mixed feelings’
There’s also the cost, DeMatteis said.
“We just had a major water rate increase. And they’d have to raise the rates again to put a poison in the water,” DeMatteis said.
The city of Sheridan implemented water fluoridation and according to The Sheridan Press is spending a little over $22,000 a year to add fluoride to its water supply.
Les Hook, city public works director, said there’s potential to spend $15,000 to $20,000 up front in engineering costs on top of actually installing the equipment. He said that anytime a municipality makes a change in the water treatment process, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality requires engineered drawings.
Hook said he has mixed feelings about adding fluoride to the city’s water supply. He said that most water schools that he attends say to try to avoid adding it to the water, mainly because it opens the door to a potential lawsuit.
“There have been several towns that lawsuits have been brought against them for mass dosing a society with something that half of them don’t want,” Hook said. “There are a lot of mixed feelings out there.”
City Attorney Ben Kirven said that he isn’t advising the city council either way on the issue because he doesn’t believe it’s a legal issue. Rather, it’s a policy issue, he said.
Dr. Matt Hein, dentist at Buffalo Dental Clinic, said he can see both sides of the issue. While he approves of fluoridating the city’s water and would vote in favor of it if it comes to that, he understands that some people don’t want the added fluoride, and he can respect that.
“The science behind it shows that fluoride is really safe when it’s done in a proper manner,” Hein said. “The real question is for the people who would be getting it who don’t want it. It’s your body, and if you feel you are being forced into it, I can understand that. It’s a very volatile topic, but I think the benefits outweigh the risks. From a scientific standpoint, it’s a safe option.”
Multiple health organizations across the world are in favor of fluoridating municipal water systems, including the American Dental Association, the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Surgeon General.
According to the ADA, there is no association between fluoridation of city water and brain development or a lower IQ. Schueler reiterated that the decision to fluoridate Buffalo’s water should be a decision made by city water users. According to the ADA, studies that tie fluoride to brain development are cited from China, India and Mexico, areas where environmental conditions are different from those in the U.S.
‘Having an intelligent discussion’
“We need to have a serious discussion and analyze the information,” Schueler said. “The choice will be unique to our situation here. Buffalo has its own set of issues. The people here locally will make the best decision for Buffalo. It’s worth having a serious discussion. It’s not about winning. It’s about looking at the information and having an intelligent discussion. If I can raise awareness and provide perspective from public health, then I’ve done my job.”
DeMatteis said it’s time to address what’s causing the high level of tooth decay in Johnson County, rather than adding more supplements to the water supply.
“Let’s look at more preventative maintenance and educating kids on not eating sugar,” DeMatteis said. “Let’s look at what’s causing cavities rather than adding something that causes more harm to the body than it does good.”
The city of Buffalo will host public meetings at 5 p.m. May 2 and May 26 at City Hall to discuss fluoridating the city’s water.