Bemused City Council members have deflected a resident’s demand that the Water Management Department stop adding fluoride to Durham’s drinking water.

“Obviously, the suggestion would be a dramatic change from the way we presently operate,” Mayor Bill Bell told the resident, Corey Sturmer. “I’m sure the manager and his staff will take it under advisement and come back with a recommendation.”

Sturmer minutes before had told council members there’s lots of evidence to show that fluoride is “a poison that can affect IQ levels in children.”

Water Management Assistant Director Vicki Westbrook, however, said city officials agree with state and federal experts who consider water fluoridation “is one of the top 10 advances in public health that’s happened since the 1900s.”

Fluoridation has been widespread in the United States since the 1950s. It gained acceptance among medical professionals and water systems, at least, as a strategy to head off tooth decay.

In those quarters, water fluoridation and the increasing use of fluoridated toothpaste are considered “largely responsible for the significant documented decline in tooth decay” in the U.S. over the past several decades,” Kevin Buchholtz, an N.C. Division of Public Health dentist supervisor, said in a letter of city officials.

He added that from the state’s perspective, “trying to respond to every allegation regarding fluoride is challenging and counterproductive.”

Buchholtz was acknowledging that fluoridation has remained controversial in some quarters, for reasons that range from a belief it’s an infringement on civil liberties to worry that it’s counterproductive from a health standpoint.

Critics have drawn solace in recent years from studies coming out of China that claim an inverse correlation between fluoride levels in drinking water and IQ.

One such study appeared late in 2010 in a journal published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. It reported research in two Chinese villages that obtain their water from wells.

Other researchers, however, have been dubious of studies claiming links to low IQ and other conditions.

A group in the United Kingdom, for instance, in 2000 reviewed the literature on fluoridation and found many articles dealing with possible negative effects [sic], including IQ [sic], offered low-quality evidence and had a high risk of bias. [Note: see comments below]

With only one exception – the mountain town of Brevard – cities and towns in North Carolina with water systems use fluoridation. Brevard dropped the practice in 2007 but is reconsidering that decision, Buchholtz said.

Durham like other cities has reduced the amount of fluoride it adds during the treatment process, in line with advice from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Westbrook said.

Anti-fluoride campaigning acquired a bit of a stigma in the 1960s, thanks to the embrace of the cause by right-wing groups that regarded fluoridation and other public-health initiatives as a Communist or socialist plot.

Their views were famously ridiculed in film director Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 movie “Dr. Strangelove.” One of the film’s characters initiated a nuclear attack on the former Soviet Union because he thought fluoridation had caused in him a “loss of essence” he could discern during sex.

But skepticism does have some support in the political mainstream. The Sierra Club’s national board of directors in 2008 said there were “valid concerns about the potential adverse impact of fluoridation on the environment, wildlife and human health.”

It recommended the use of different fluoride-bearing compounds in treatment than the one Sturmer believes Durham is using. Club leaders also thought water managers before fluoridating should assess the potential impact on wildlife and plants.

They further said “communities should have the option to reject mandatory fluoridation of their water supplies.”