The Fairbanks City Council decided Monday to continue the city’s 48-year-old practice of supplementing fluoride levels in public drinking water.
The council’s split vote came at its regular meeting and followed three hours of comments from residents, most of whom objected to having fluoride universally added to water supplies. Public health professionals, however, tended to support fluoridation, seen by proponents as a cost-effective way to help populations prevent tooth decay and save communities money on collective dental bills.
“It’s not perfect,” said Cheryl Kilgore, executive director of the Interior Community Health Center, of fluoridation. “Nothing’s perfect. But it’s been well studied” and shown to be safe, she said.
Fluoridation critics, on the other hand, told the city they didn’t need it to force extra fluoride on them through the tap — they can simply brush their teeth or use mouthwash.
“I think all of these people,” Schaeffer Cox said of those attending the meeting, “can take care of themselves.”
Councilwoman Vivian Stiver had proposed ending the practice of fluoridation, through which the water utility company adds a fluoride compound — one of many additives found in drinking water — to double the level found in Fairbanks water naturally and, in the process, meet recommendations from state and national health officials.
The effort failed when only two of five council members, Stiver and Councilwoman Tonya Brown, backed the measure. The vote followed an unsuccessful attempt by Councilman John Eberhart to forward the issue directly to voters and one by Stiver to postpone the measure until July.
Fluoridation is a common practice in about two-thirds of the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But it has stirred debate in many communities and some scientific circles inside and outside the country.
Nineteen people at Monday’s meeting asked the city to end fluoridation, while seven supported the program. Some critics noted the compound added to water in Fairbanks and other places originated as a byproduct of the fertilizer industry, and pointed to studies that show long-term exposure to fluoride at four times the recommended level can cause defects in tooth enamel.
Dentist Ronald Teel said responsible fluoridation programs have been endorsed by numerous health agencies and national surgeon generals. He estimated every dollar spent on fluoridation programs saves $38 that would otherwise have gone toward work at the dentist’s chair.
“This is particularly important for low-income and single-parent families,” Teel said.
But most of those who spoke — including some who brought young children — said they’d rather pass on the option of ingesting extra fluoride via tap water.
Resident Sarah Wolf noted that while public officials can control how much fluoride is in the water they can’t control how much of the water people drink.
“It’s like, why would you subject the whole community to this mass medication?” she said.
Allyn Yanish said he’s driven regularly to Fox for 12 years for water so his family can avoid the city’s water supply.
“I’m making my monthly pilgrimage,” he said. “I just don’t think we need to be forcing (fluoride) in our systems when it just needs to be on our teeth.”
Dentist Craig O’Donoghue broke with most other health professionals, saying he remains unconvinced fluoride compounds, when ingested, have little or no side effects on body organs including the brain, as many proponents state. He asked the council to stray on the side of caution.
“I think there’s a credible amount of evidence that it does have an effect” on bones and glands, he said.
Jennifer Schmidt, a public health nurse and member of the Fairbanks school board, asked the council to keep fluoridation and avoid making a “poor public policy” call by ending a beneficial program without replacing it with something better.
“None of the (alternatives) are as easy to implement. None of the alternatives are as cost effective,” she said.
Ester resident Douglas Yates, who helped organize the group Fluoride Free Fairbanks in an attempt to halt fluoridation, said following the vote that it was too early to say whether the group would attempt to change city law through an initiative.