Former Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell tersely ticked off to a crowd of fluoride detractors last year why he wasn’t going to budge: They had no scientific evidence, his own dentist supports adding fluoride to drinking water, and a City Council committee had even “gone to the trouble” of vetting the issue.
The council sided with him and approved spending up to $2.2 million over four years to keep the Austin Water Utility stocked with the substance it uses to increase the fluoride level in city water.
Now there is a new crop of council members in office — and, it seems, a new willingness to engage in a debate over whether to continue a practice that federal public health officials herald as one of the biggest advances of the past century.
The council’s Public Utilities Committee will again take up water fluoridation this week, after hearing remarks from the public and from city health officials in June, and consider a resolution from Council Member Don Zimmerman that says it’s “unethical” to force residents to consume fluoride and calls for the city to stop doing so by December. The Health and Human Services Committee also will consider the issue.
It only takes one committee member to place an item on the agenda. And Zimmerman is often the sole dissenting vote on the council.
But at the Public Utilities Committee’s last meeting, Council Member Ellen Troxclair told fluoride opponents that “the fact that we’re considering this resolution and have had this conversation tonight is proof that it’s definitely being considered by the new council.” Troxclair suggested, though, that the resolution could instead ask the city manager for different water fluoridation options or a report on the topic.
Council Member Ann Kitchen, another committee member, said in a written statement this week, “I’m interested in hearing from the city’s public health department. I trust their expertise in addressing the public health issues impacted.”
One way to end the practice of fluoridating Austin’s water would be a majority vote by the City Council, said assistant city attorney Jerikay Gayle. Or, if the council received a valid petition with 20,000 signatures, it could either decide to stop fluoridation or call for a public vote on the issue, Gayle said.
Anti-fluoride activists, who have been frequent faces at council meetings in the past several years, say that drinking fluoridated water lowers IQ, damages bones and causes hypothyroidism, among other dangers. Plus, it’s wasting taxpayer money, they say.
Public health officials say such conclusions stem from cherry-picking, distorting or misapplying the findings of scientific studies — studies that, in the first place, are not rigorous or well-designed.
“It really takes a lot of thorough reviewing of all this information,” said Dr. Philip Huang, medical director and health authority for the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department. “And it takes knowledge of how to assess the quality of the study.”
There is a vast body of research, public health officials say, that shows fluoridated water is one of the primary ways to combat tooth decay and adds benefits beyond those that come from brushing teeth with fluoridated toothpaste. The adage “moderation in all things” does apply to fluoride, as too much fluoride from any source over an extended period can cause spotting on teeth called fluorosis.
The first city to add fluoride to its water was Grand Rapids, Mich., in 1945. Children there and in another community without a fluoridation program were tracked over 15 years. A study found those who drank the fluoridated water were less likely to experience tooth decay, and the practice began spreading as a way to help prevent the most common chronic disease among children and adolescents — tooth decay — on a communitywide level.
Austin has fluoridated its water since 1973, after a public vote on the issue the year prior, though the level has changed at least once. The Austin Water Utility last changed its target in 2008 to 0.7 milligrams per liter — the same level in a new recommendation the federal government finalized this summer. (The previous recommendation was 0.7 to 1.2 milligrams per liter.)
The water utility adds fluorosilicic acid, which is heavily diluted, to increase the naturally occurring level of fluoride in the water, said Jane Burazer, assistant director of the utility’s treatment program. In one glass of water, there is five-millionths of an ounce of fluoride, Burazer said.
In the 2013-14 city budget year, fluoridating water cost $339,725.89, or 38 cents a person. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found every $1 spent on fluoridation saves about $38 per year in dental costs.
Rae Nadler-Olenick, who founded the advocacy group Fluoride Free Austin in 2008, said she can’t remember the exact moment she had what she considers an epiphany about how harmful water fluoridation is. She does recall lower-income students getting negative reports from the dentist who visited the school system she attended in St. Louis, Mo., once a year, while the students from well-off families got good reviews.
“At the time, I noticed the social disparity that is talked about today as the pretext for fluoridating,” Nadler-Olenick said. “Today we see the same disparity.”
She also recalls reading the book “The Fluoride Deception,” which she said “was so well annotated that there’s no way you could imagine that this guy cut corners.”
The federal government says 67 percent of Americans drink fluoridated water, but there are U.S. cities large and small that have decided not to fluoridate water. Voters in Portland have rejected fluoridating city water four times since 1956. Closer to home, College Station and Elgin ended the practice, and a group in San Marcos has been pushing for a vote on prohibiting water fluoridation.