City of Durango water commissioners last week finished hearing presentations in a new debate on an old topic – whether the city should continue to fluoridate its drinking water.
The question arises periodically, said Jack Rogers, the city’s public works director. Residents voiced concern in 1957 about government-sponsored mass medication when the city began to fluoridate water, and in 2005 several fluoridation opponents tried, and failed, to put a referendum on the city ballot, Rogers said.
In the latest round, water commissioners in November heard from opponents of fluoridation and on Jan. 5, from proponents. Commissioners are scheduled to decide which way to go in February or March. If they support the status quo, they probably won’t send a recommendation to the City Council, Rogers said.
Roots of fluoridation
The foundation for fluoridation of drinking water nationally was laid in Manitou Springs in the first decade of the 20th century when dentist Frederick McKay noticed that many residents of the Front Range community had stained – but sound – teeth. McKay’s curiosity led to investigations that around 1930 revealed that the stain was caused by the naturally high concentration of fluoride in the water.
Additional studies found that fluoride prevents cavities, and in the mid-1940s, Grand Rapids, Mich., became the first city to fluoridate its public water system. Today, about two-thirds of U.S. residents have fluoridated water.
Opponents of fluoridation offer health and ethical reasons against the practice. They say fluoridation violates certain religious beliefs, is big government forcing itself on citizens and could turn out to be as detrimental to human health as other substances once considered safe – asbestos, saccharin, DDT, agent orange and thalidomide. Brendan Bombaci, a second-year anthropology student at Fort Lewis College who opposes fluoridation of public water, asked to speak to water commissioners in November.
“Fluoride is a systematic toxin,” Bombaci said last week in an interview with The Durango Herald. “Maybe it kills bacteria in your mouth that causes tooth decay, but it’s not something that we should ingest.”
Bombaci, 26, spent his formative years in Albuquerque, which fluoridates its water. He said he brushed twice daily and flossed but still ended up with a cavity.
Bombaci shared the presentation he made to water commissioners. In it, he quotes from a range of sources, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Journal of the American Dental Association and independent studies that are critical of fluoridation.
He quoted from an Aug. 17, 2001, report from the CDC that said the prevalence of dental cavities in a population “is not inversely related to the concentration of fluoride in enamel, and a higher concentration of enamel fluoride is not necessarily more efficacious in preventing dental (cavities).”
Bombaci also cites a statement from the International Society of Doctors for the Environment: “The development of a fetus and of an infant (breast-feeding) can be negatively affected by drinking water with ‘optimal’ sodium fluoride levels because it is a toxin, and especially a neurotoxin, scientifically proven capable of affecting intelligence, thyroid, hormones and reproduction.”
60-year safety record
Theresa Anselmo, director of the oral health unit at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, who spoke to water commissioners Jan. 5, dismissed the neurotoxin allegation.
“The study involved rats fed 125 times the amount of fluoride found in drinking water,” Anselmo said by telephone Thursday. “The study claimed the rats showed cognitive and behavioral aberrations, but there was no control group (of rats) and a review of the study concluded the research was not sound and that the findings could be explained by other mechanisms.”
In her interview with the Herald, Anselmo said:”The appropriate level of fluoride in water has been deemed safe for more than 60 years. Fluoridation is a cornerstone of public health and has been ranked in the top 10 achievements of the 20th century along with the pasteurization of milk, control of infectious diseases, safer food, family planning, the identification of tobacco as a health hazard and motor-vehicle and workplace safety.”
Dr. Ryan Mickelson, a dentist in private practice in Durango and a volunteer in a Montezuma County Health Department program for low-income children, also spoke to water commissioners.
Dental health has improved immeasurably since fluoridation of water began, Mickelson said this week by telephone. In some places in the U.S., parents used to take their children to the dentist on their 21st birthday to get what remaining teeth they had pulled and then get fitted with artificial choppers, Mickelson said.
“Fluoride in the water is for low-income kids because it means one less problem for them,” Mickelson said later by telephone. “The rest of us, if we choose, have ways and means to buy water that hasn’t been fluoridated.”
Mickelson cited his recent response to a letter in the Herald that urged an end to fluoridation of water in Durango. In his letter Mickelson said:”It is an earnest letter written by someone who obviously feels very passionate about removing fluoride from our city water. I will never be able to change his or anyone else’s mind with a letter to the editor.”
Instead, Mickelson invited anyone who opposes fluoridation to spend time with him “on the front line of public-health dentistry” at the Montezuma County Health Department dental clinic. They will see young children who face numerous health problems, he said.
“Removing fluoride from our water would only cast more problems on an already downtrodden demographic who have no say in their situation.”
Anselmo said that in Colorado, 278 water providers offer fluoridated water to 73 percent of the population. The goal is to reach 75 percent of residents, she said.
“Optimal fluoridation levels in the state range from 0.9 to 1.1 parts per million,” Anselmo said. “The level depends on the ambient air temperature – the cooler the temperature the higher the level because people drink less water.”
The level of fluoride in public water in Durango is 1 part per million. Cortez, Bayfield and Pagosa Springs don’t fluoridate their water.