As elected officials in Fairbanks discuss whether to supplement fluoride in drinking water, they are entering a debate more familiar to some communities than others.
The policy discussion was sparked last month by concerns from a handful of residents who believe fluoridation, a regular practice in most of the United States, is outdated and risky.
As common as fluoridation policies — which help prevent tooth decay — are in this country, debates over the practice’s usefulness and safety have occurred in a number of places.
“It happens,” William Bailey, a dentist and public health specialist with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Thursday. Referring to Fairbanks, he said, “It doesn’t happen as often in a community that has been fluoridated for 50 years.”
The Centers’ pro-fluoridation policy falls into line with a law on the city of Fairbanks’ books that, since 1960, has required the public utility to supplement the water supply — which already contains some fluoride naturally — to meet state- and nationally-recommended concentrations.
But many organized communities steer clear of fluoridation, and the City Council could vote as early as Monday to halt the practice in Fairbanks. The watchdog group Fluoride Action Network lists 70 U.S. cities that have voted against fluoridation within the past nine years.
A six-member public commission in Juneau split in 2006 on the issue, deciding that “the level of uncertainty” surrounding the topic “is too high to support a recommendation for continued fluoridation.” Juneau residents later voted to reject a fluoridation measure.
Christopher Bryson is a former British Broadcasting Corp. radio producer whose 2004 book “The Fluoride Deception” chronicled evidence indicating public health standards regarding fluoridation are based on fraudulent science. He said he first became aware as the city of Leeds, England, debated the issue 15 years ago.
“It’s something that has always been a fearsome debate at the local level,” Bryson said in a phone interview Wednesday. “One of the gratifying things in the past decade, I think, is that the mainstream scientific community has come more and more to embrace the arguments that a scientific minority has been saying for many years.”
Most places in the U.S. fluoridate drinking water, and two-thirds of the U.S. was served by fluoridated public water systems as of 2002, the CDC reported.
The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California Board of Directors weighed the drawbacks and benefits during a year-long discussion prior to its 2003 decision to fluoridate drinking water for 18 million Southern California residents, said Bob Muir, a spokesman for the district. Muir said the board strongly felt the benefits outweighed potential risks.
“This (policy),” he said, “was at the request of the medical and dental health professionals in our area.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have called fluoridation “one of 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century.” Federal health officials recommend adjusting community drinking water to between 0.7 and 1.2 milligrams per liter, or parts per million. (Health officials recommend higher fluoride levels for places at cooler latitudes due to the tendency in warmer communities to drink more water.)
Water in Fairbanks naturally contains around 0.5 milligrams per liter, say city officials.
The Fairbanks City Council will host a public hearing at its regular meeting Monday night at City Hall on Councilwoman Vivian Stiver’s proposal to halt fluoridation. Mayor Terry Strle, who supports continuing the city’s current policy, stopped short of asking the council to vote a specific way but did ask that it “avoid emotion and think about the greater health and overall benefits” of fluoridation.
The center estimates public fluoridation reduces tooth decay by between 20 and 40 percent.
The American Dental Association offers information about fluoride at its Web site (www.ada.org/public/topics/fluoride). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention includes information in its Web site (www.cdc.gov/fluoridation). The group Fluoride Action Network has compiled information about fluoride at its Web site (www.fluoridealert.org).