ALBUQUERQUE — As a Bernalillo County Commissioner, Maggie Hart Stebbins represents some of the oldest and poorest neighborhoods in New Mexico’s largest city. She also sits on the board of the local water utility. So she was receptive when a pediatrician from a public health clinic in her district called to say he was concerned that the level of fluoride in the city’s drinking water had dropped too low to be effective.
Fluoride in the water is the best way to prevent cavities in children’s teeth, he said, especially children from low-income families without consistent access to dental care.
Which is why, in January 2014, she introduced what she thought was a simple proposal to increase the level of fluoride in Albuquerque’s drinking water.
The series of events that followed present a case study in what happens when staff, local experts and the weight of scientific evidence collide with a small but vocal group of citizens who are skeptical of science and even more skeptical of government.
Initial news reports of the proposal brought a flurry of angry letters to the editor and emails to the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Authority, which has a budget of more than $170 million and serves about 600,000 water users in the central, most populous part of New Mexico.
In response to the attention, the water utility board decided in February to defer action on the vote and hold a town hall on the topic in early April.
Although several dentists and public health officials spoke strongly of the benefits of fluoridation, opponents dominated the meeting, railing against the proposal from across the ideological spectrum.
One self-described environmentalist told board members fluoride was a dangerous toxin, saying: “It’s not right to do this to poor children who can’t afford to filter it [water] like we can.”
Others condemned community fluoridation as an attack on individual liberty, an effort at mind control and a waste of taxpayer money.
Despite having spent a few years in Washington, D.C., as a congressional aide, and a few more as a project manager for multi-county governmental agency, Hart Stebbins was still surprised by the negative reaction to her proposal.
“The fluoride debate was really the first time that I’d encountered that very deep distrust of government,” she told GovExec State & Local in an interview. Hart Stebbins was appointed to the county commission in 2009, then elected in 2010 and reelected in 2012.
Realizing she was in for a debate, Hart Stebbins did her homework. She said she read everything she could find on the subject, pro and con.
“When I read what the experts had to say it made perfect sense,” she said. “It conformed to my understanding of science. It was a no-brainer.”
And yet many of the opponents were armed with science, too. Several mentioned to her a study conducted by researchers at Harvard (Hart Stebbins’ alma mater) that showed a link between fluoride exposure and lowered IQ.
“I had looked at the research that those people were referring to, so I could say: ‘I hear you, I understand your concerns, I’ve read the same article but I don’t agree,’” she recalled.
Two weeks after the town hall, at the water utility’s regular April meeting, board members voted not to resume adding fluoride but to wait for federal officials to issue a final recommendation and then take up the issue again. Hart Stebbins cast the lone nay vote.
The commissioner said the experience highlighted for her the overwhelming amount of information available to the public, and sharpened her perception of what she describes as “anti-science and anti-elitist” sentiments in American politics.
“You can go on the Internet and find conflicting information about any topic — global warming, health care, vaccinations — and you can’t trust it all,” she said. “You have to be confident about what you believe, in the sources of information that you consult and at some point, you just have to vote for what you believe is right, regardless of the criticism that is surely going to follow.”
Ironically, water utility staff had made previous decisions about fluoride quietly, without public comment or a vote. Hart Stebbins said she thought that was inappropriate and that’s why she brought the issue to the board.
She has steeled herself for another round of debate when the board takes up the issue again, although no one is sure when that will be. The federal Department of Health and Human Services published the proposed recommendations in January 2011 and the final recommendations are expected sometime this year.
As the much-lauded captain of her college lacrosse team (she was named to the All-American team and later inducted into the Harvard Varsity Club Hall of Fame) Hart Stebbins says she learned lifelong lessons about endurance and perseverance.
“It has translated into the work I do now, the knowledge that it’s worth pursuing things that are painful and that I can push myself beyond what I thought I’d be able to do.”
Gwyneth Doland covers politics and policy for KNME-TV/New Mexico PBS, teaches in the journalism department at the University of New Mexico and is based in Albuquerque.
WATCH: Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Authority delays action on fluoride in April