Deciding when to vote on adding fluoride to the city’s drinking water is becoming just as controversial and complicated as deciding whether fluoride itself poses a health hazard.
On Wednesday, the Colorado Springs City Council, acting as the Colorado Springs Utilities Board, voted to postpone its decision until late November, opting instead to enlist the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study the highly charged issue.
It is the third time the Utilities Board has agreed to delay a decision on whether fluoride in the form of hydrofluosilicic acid should be added to two-thirds of the city’s drinking supply, primarily on the north and east sides. The remaining city water is naturally fluoridated.
Many cities across the country, including Fort Collins, are using the acid – an industrial waste byproduct that is extracted from fertilizer scrub stacks – to fluoridate their water.
Opponents say the acid contaminates the water with a variety of metals, including lead, and that no studies have been conducted on the long-term health effects.
Proponents counter that plenty of studies have been done, and that the acid, when added to the water, breaks down and becomes harmless.
After initially rejecting the idea of recruiting the CDC in a 5-to-4 vote, the nine-member Utilities Board came back after a 10-minute break and approved the move.
“We have to try to fill in these scientific gaps, this void in the data on whether this acid is dangerous or not,” Councilwoman Judy Noyes said after the meeting. Noyes originally had voted against turning to the CDC.
Councilman Ted Eastburn said he has approached the CDC, and the agency expressed an interest in carrying out the study.
Under Eastburn’s proposal, which has not yet been formalized, the CDC would study three populations along the Front Range: Fort Collins, whose water has been fluoridated with hydrofluosilicic acid since 1993; pockets in Colorado Springs where the water is naturally fluoridated; and pockets where it isn’t.
But even Eastburn cautioned that his plan could fall through at the last minute, which led the board to come up with a deadline of Nov. 28.
“We have the unique possibility to enhance science, fill in the gaps and possibly provide the rest of the world, if you will, with important scientific information that’s now lacking,” Eastburn said.
Many dentists in Colorado Springs think the acid is safe to use. Councilman Jim Null agrees.
“This image of an industrial byproduct pouring out of air stacks and into the water is inaccurate,” Null said. “I don’t think many people understand the process. The possibility of poisoning people with this acid is a little dramatic.”
But Lisa McLaughlin, the founder of It’s Not Fluoride Only, said she wants scientific proof that the acid is not harmful to the public.
“I’m all for studying the issue more,” she said. “If we can at least try to scientifically prove that acid is safe by bringing in the CDC, then by all means let’s try to prove it.”
Councilwoman Margaret Radford, who was ready to vote against fluoridation, said she doesn’t think Utilities should be in the business of adding fluoride to the water.
“Safe, clean water,” she said. “That’s our core issue.”
Utilities spent $1.3 million last year redesigning the way it treats water in anticipation that its fluoridation program would be approved.
But three new council members – Sallie Clark, Charles Wingate and Radford – so far oppose it.
Wingate criticized any decision to postpone the issue. He said he thought the issue should be decided once and for all. If the CDC study reveals that the acid is unsafe, then the Utilities Board could reverse its decision.
“We keep building up the issue and not making a decision,” he said. “And not making a decision will only annoy a lot of people.”
But Eastburn said he tries not to make decisions based on the audience, which filled the Utilities Board room to capacity Wednesday.
“I don’t count the house,” he said.