A national expert on fluoridation, brought in to bolster a drive to add fluoride to the city’s drinking water, loaded supporters with facts, endorsements and statistics at a dental summit in Billings on Friday.
Judging from the skepticism expressed by some at the meeting, and the open hostility of others, those supporters are sure to encounter opposition as they proceed to make their case to the community.
Jane McGinley, manager of fluoridation and preventive health activities for the American Dental Association, addressed about 35 people during the meeting in the Mary Alice Fortin Center at Deaconess Billings Clinic.
Among reputable health officials and health organizations, McGinley said, the debate about the benefits of fluoridation ended years ago. She said challenges to fluoridation have ranged from allegations that it was a communist plot in the 1950s to current fears that it will harm the environment.
All the opposition, she said, has been based on “junk science” that does not stand up to standard scientific scrutiny and peer review.
Fluoridation has been endorsed by the ADA, the American Medical Association, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher. According to a handout from McGinley, Satcher called it “the single most effective public health measure to prevent tooth decay and improve oral health over a lifetime, for both children and adults.”
The Centers for Disease Control, she added, not only endorsed it, but called the fluoridation of drinking water one of the 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century.
Several speakers Friday said fluoride is naturally present in most drinking water, so it is more accurate to speak of stabilizing fluoride levels in water rather than of adding fluoride to it.
McGinley said the optimal level of fluoride is considered to be 0.7 to 1.2 parts per million, and that 65.8 percent of people in the United States, or 162 million, are drinking water fluoridated within that range.
One goal of a nationwide initiative called Healthy People 2010 is to raise the percentage to 72 by that year, she said. Sixteen of the nation’s largest cities have been fluoridating their water since the 1950s, she said, and 45 of them have optimal levels of fluoridation, though in three cities the fluoride occurs naturally.
The natural fluoride level in the Yellowstone River averages about 0.4 parts per million, according to Public Utilities Director Carl Christensen, and it would cost about $35,000 a year, or about 40 cents per city resident, to bring that to the optimal level.
The meeting Friday grew out of an earlier dental summit convened to deal with what has been described as a dental-care crisis in Billings. Since the first summit, volunteers have been working on a three-part campaign to improve dental health in Billings, by promoting fluoride stabilization; seeking changes in licensing laws to allow, among other things, retired dentists to provide free dental care; and increasing public awareness of issues affecting dental health.
The City Council is also considering adoption of a fluoridation program in Billings. Assistant City Administrator Kristoff Bauer said the council could do that by a simple motion, a resolution or an ordinance. Council members asked city staff last week to schedule a public hearing on the issue, after which they will decide how to proceed.
A taste of what the council can expect to hear was offered at the meeting Friday.
Dick Monette, who said after the first summit that he moved to Montana from Texas three years ago and intends to fight fluoridation, repeatedly called fluoride a poison and asked McGinley whether she agreed.
McGinley said it was a known toxin, but only in massive doses, as are many otherwise harmless elements and chemicals. Monette also read what he said was a statement from the Public Health Service, advising pregnant women and other susceptible people about the dangers of fluoride.
McGinley said she’d seen that statement before, but knew it to be written by a Public Health Service agency specifically in regard to Superfund cleanup sites. Its advice was aimed at those who encounter large quantities of fluoride and has nothing to do with fluoride in drinking water, she said.
Other people had questions about whether it is wise to add fluoride to drinking water when elevated levels are already found in things like fruit juices, which are sprayed with pesticides containing fluoride.
McGinley said no ill effects have been found yet in people who live in areas of abnormally high, naturally occurring fluoride.
Lora Schultz, a public health nurse and the health coordinator at Head Start, is chairwoman of a committee working on fluoride stabilization, created after the first dental summit.
She told the audience Friday, “People need to remain focused on this as a health issue. As a health issue, there’s only one side.”
Frank Deisz wouldn’t agree. He and his late wife, Leona, were active in the anti-fluoridation campaign when a fluoridation measure was defeated at the polls in the early 1980s, and he said Billings voters turned it down once before, too.
“What part of ‘no’ don’t you people understand?” he said. Addressing McGinley, he added, “Here you come in arrogantly trying to shove it down our throats.”
But health officials at the meeting described fluoridation as the foundation of a good dental-health program. Several dentists spoke of the thinning ranks of dentists in Montana, the growing waiting lists for dental care at public clinics and the obvious need for prevention.
Harry Miller, director of physician recruitment for Deaconess Billings Clinic, said one out of seven visits to the DBC emergency room is by someone with oral health needs. “It’s a very serious problem,” he said.
Schultz said supporters of fluoridation need to get the word out that the vast majority of health officials are in favor of the effort.
“If the American Medical Association endorses fluoride in my drinking water,” she said, “that’s good enough for me.”