One day Susan Willis saw a picture of the bag of fluoride that Palo Alto adds to its water. The sodium fluorosilicate was labeled “toxic.”
That was all the incentive she needed to begin campaigning against water fluoridation. A cancer survivor intent on removing toxins from her environment, she gathered enough signatures to force the city to place Measure B on the Nov. 4 ballot. It would stop Palo Alto’s 50-year practice of fluoridating drinking water.
“If it comes in a bag with a skull and crossbones on it, you don’t put it in your mouth,” said Willis, a psychologist and daughter of a dentist. She lists a litany of disorders — arthritis, osteoporosis — that she said are linked to fluoride ingestion.
Fluoridation proponents dismiss those claims as junk science and charge that opponents are trying to turn back the clock half a century. They say that fluoride opponents quote medical literature out of context.
And they say that much of Measure B is unenforceable and would prompt lawsuits against the city. State law requires cities of Palo Alto’s size to fluoridate their water.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, water fluoridation is “a safe, effective and inexpensive way to prevent” tooth decay.
Dr. Howard Pollick, a clinical professor at the University of California-San Francisco School of Dentistry who has studied dental-health needs of California children, said dental studies indicate drinking fluoridated water reduces tooth decay by 50 percent.
He said studies quoted by fluoride opponents often relate to industrial fluoride contamination, and that those conclusions can’t be extrapolated. At 1 part per million, the standard fluoride content for drinking water, “there is no buildup and no harm and no toxic effects to any individual regardless of their medical status,” Pollick said.
That doesn’t deter critics like Willis. She said there is a significant amount of dental fluorosis — brown-stained teeth — in Palo Alto, a claim she bases on people talking to her.
Dentists have their own anecdotes. Jan Gabus, a dentist active in the campaign against Measure B, said he has seen only one patient in 20 years of practice in Menlo Park with fluorosis.
But in the early ’70s, he saw a lot of decay in his practice, then in San Jose. Except, “every once in a while somebody would come through the office and they had beautiful, perfect teeth. It finally dawned on me that all of these kids came from the Evergreen area, and they had water fluoridation.”
Critics say dentists look only at the mouth. “They’re not experts on bones, or thyroids or brains or other aspects of the body,” Willis said. She said people who want fluoride should have it applied topically — by brushing or by dentists. When added to the water, it is forced upon an entire community, she said.
Regardless of how Measure B fares, within two years, the Hetch Hetchy system that supplies water to Palo Alto is expected to begin fluoridating all water upstream. Civic leaders and others fear that Measure B could either delay the start-up of the Hetch Hetchy fluoridation station or force the city to look for another supplier.
The opposition to Measure B doesn’t faze Willis. She said that once-common materials such as mercury amalgam fillings, asbestos and lead now have proven to be hazardous.
Contact Sharon Noguchi at firstname.lastname@example.org or (650) 688-7576.