STE. GENEVIEVE, MO. – More than 30,000 volunteers and 1 million sandbags helped this historic city on the Mississippi River fight the Flood of 1993.
Most of its French colonial houses survived. Its contaminated water-treatment plant reopened. And the tourists came back. But one thing never returned.
As dentist Kent Sadler found out at a Rotary Club meeting in 1997, the city never resumed fluoridation of its public water system after the flood.
No one has admitted how or why that oversight occurred, but Sadler discovered a firestorm of opposition to fluoridation at City Hall when he pursued the issue two years ago.
Now Sadler and others concerned about the health of Ste. Genevieve’s children are hoping to put fluoride back into the city’s water over the objections of the city’s former mayor and some current aldermen.
After much debate and finger-pointing, the city’s Board of Aldermen is expected tonight to consider an ordinance to restore fluoride to the city’s water. A final vote is expected in two weeks.
Leading the charge is Mayor Ralph Beckerman, a former alderman elected mayor last year.
“I’m for fluoride,” Beckerman said. “There is no question.”
Since the 1950s, communities throughout the nation have added fluoride to their water to help prevent tooth decay. Fluoride – a naturally occurring compound – hardens tooth enamel and helps block acids that can lead to decay.
Today, more than 145 million people, or 62 percent of Americans, in 10,000 communities drink fluoridated water – typically at a level of 1 part fluoride per million parts water.
In Missouri, more than 3 million people in 165 communities drink fluoridated water – including most of the St. Louis metropolitan area. That’s about 75 percent of all those who use public water systems, according to the Missouri Department of Health.
The American Dental Association, the U.S. Public Health Service, the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization all support fluoridation of water.
“They all endorse it and I respect their opinions,” Beckerman said.
Sadler, who has practiced dentistry since 1973, had been instrumental in getting fluoride added to the water for Ste. Genevieve’s 4,600 residents in 1980. He said he saw a remarkable decline in tooth decay in his patients several years after the fluoridation began and has seen about a two-thirds increase in tooth decay since fluoridation ended.
“You see all these kids come in and they have tons of cavities,” he said.
But the possibility that fluoride will return to the city’s water has stirred up its share of critics and drawn in a major power in town, Mississippi Lime Co.
Mike “Buck” Jokerst, the city’s former mayor, successfully beat back an attempt to resume fluoridation in 1998. At that time, he cast the deciding “no” vote after aldermen split 4-4 on the issue.
No longer an elected official, Jokerst maintains a vocal presence at aldermanic meetings when it comes to fluoride.
Jokerst worries that fluoride can cause medical problems. He points to information from the National Health Federation and nofluoride.com, two clearinghouses of information used by fluoride opponents.
“The risks far outweigh the benefits,” Jokerst said.
Alderman Gerry Schwendt says the information Jokerst and others have shown him is enough to raise questions.
“If there is so much controversy, why should we make a decision until the controversy is settled,” Schwendt said. “Why should I be pressed to administer a drug to my entire community? Why don’t we just put Tylenol in our water system?”
Dr. Dean Perkins, chief of Missouri’s Bureau of Dental Health, has heard such talk for years. Most of the debate over fluoride ended decades ago, but the issue continues to flare up every once in a while throughout Missouri and the nation.
He points to the overwhelming number of studies over the years by respected scientists that show properly fluoridated water is safe and beneficial.
One often-cited problem – fluorosis – or white flecks that develop on the teeth, can be caused by too much fluoride. But that problem is usually cosmetic and occurs mostly in areas of the world with an abundance of natural fluoride, where fluoride tablets or supplements are misused or where very young children swallow toothpaste, Perkins said.
“There are always those susceptible to conspiracy theories,” he said.
The bureau, part of the state Department of Health, will provide equipment to fluoridate water at no cost to any community that seeks it.
Battlefield, Mo., outside Springfield, recently added fluoride. Potosi is considering it now.
Alderman Schwendt also has voiced concern at aldermanic meetings that the fluoride could be detrimental to the area’s biggest employer, Mississippi Lime. Schwendt works for the company.
Privately held Mississippi Lime, based in Alton, mines limestone and processes lime for use in everything from building materials to toothpaste to pharmaceuticals. Its giant facility, billed as the world’s largest single chemical lime plant, sits just outside the Ste. Genevieve city limits on Highway 61.
The plant employs more than 700 people. It also is the city’s biggest water customer, using 3.3 million gallons a year, or about 20 percent of the city’s total water usage.
The company, which has its own wells, began buying water from the city when Ste. Genevieve opened a new treatment plant in 1997.
Never shy to throw their weight around, Mississippi Lime officials insist they are not taking a stand on this issue.
The company is already embroiled in a highly public fight with Ste. Genevieve County and is seeking a $1 million reduction in its taxes.
Company representatives have met with city officials to explain how fluoridated water would hamper their production of certain lime products, mainly food additives. Those products tend to be low volume, but highly profitable.
“The addition of fluoride to the water does affect our operation, but not enough that we think it is appropriate to take a public stand on this issue,” said Mike DeCola, the company’s chief executive.
DeCola said company officials have informed the city that they couldn’t justify spending the estimated $160,000 to build a separate line for nonfluoridated water. Another option might be to haul in nonfluoridated water for the food part of the company’s production process, DeCola said.