Pressure from concerned Fairhope residents had Mayor Tim Kant float the idea to the council this week of researching the pros and cons of stopping the fluoridation of the city’s drinking water.
Fluoride is added to water, as well as toothpaste and some other oral hygiene products, to help prevent tooth decay. The practice of fluoridating municipal water supplies has been endorsed by the U.S. government since the 1950s and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called it “one of 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century.”
Detractors of the practice point to potential health problems associated with the high intake of fluoride such as increasing iodine deficiencies and contributing to brittle bones. Some people also argue that the government shouldn’t make decisions for the public.
The topic was back under the national microscope Monday after media outlets reported the findings of a new study in England, linking fluoridated water to increased risk of having an underactive thyroid that triggers weight gain, depression and other ailments. Other researchers have argued that the study was poorly designed and the findings were overstated.
Coincidentally on Monday, the Fairhope City Council was slated to extend a contract with Water and Waste Specialties LLC for one year to supply hydrofluorosilicic acid, which is used to fluoridate drinking water, for the water department. The cost is $330 per 55 gallon drum and Water Superintendent Dan McCrory said the city spends about $25,000 annually on the supply.
During the council work session, Kant mentioned some of the residents’ concerns.
“Now a lot of communities are worried about the extra chemicals you’re putting in the water, so we could probably look into it if you want,” Kant said.
Council President Jack Burrell said he read an article about the issue but wasn’t convinced that it’s an overriding problem.
“We all grew up with it, that was a good thing,” Burrell said.
Councilman Kevin Boone mentioned water quality awards that the city has received over the past few years as a reason not to change.
In 2007, the water department earned a Water Fluoridation Quality Award, recognizing consistent fluoride levels for good oral health. In 2012, the city’s water received the “Best Tasting” award at the annual meeting of the Alabama/Mississippi Section of the American Water Works Association and, in March 2013, Fairhope was also voted “Best Tasting Water” by the Alabama Rural Water Association.
“We may not want to mess with the formula,” Burrell said.
Kant said he didn’t have a problem looking into the fluoridation issue but none of the council members felt strongly enough about it to delay awarding the one-year contract for hydrofluorosilicic acid.
“If it’s something you want to look at that’d be a great project for the environmental committee to undertake,” Kant said. It was noted later in the meeting by Councilman Rich Mueller that there is a lack of interest in the environmental committee and more members are needed.
At present, Fairhope is among the majority of water providers in Baldwin County that add fluoride to the water supply. Out of 18 water systems in the county, according to the CDC website, only Belforest Water System and Robertsdale Utilities do not fluoridate drinking water.
The systems that add fluoride include Daphne, East Central Baldwin, Elberta, Fairhope, Riviera Utilities-Foley, Gulf Shores, Loxley, North Baldwin, Orange Beach, Park City-Daphne, Perdido Bay, Perdido Water, Silverhill, Spanish Fort, Summerdale and White House Fork.
In late 2006, the North Baldwin Utilities board voted to stop adding fluoride to its water supply but a strong backlash from the public prompted the board to reinstate the practice in 2008.
Across Mobile Bay, the Mobile Area Water & Sewer System has added fluoride since 1958 but the Mobile County Water, Sewer and Fire Protection Authority does not, according to the latest report to the CDC. Efforts to confirm that system, which serves south Mobile County, still does not fluoridate the water were unsuccessful Wednesday despite reaching out to its public relations firm.
The Environmental Protection Agency has pegged the maximum allowable level of fluoride in drinking water at 4 parts per million, or 4 milligrams per liter. The general standard recommendation by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department is 0.7 parts per million for warmer climates where people drink more water to 1.2 parts per million in cooler regions. Since 2011 the HHS has been reviewing a proposal to set the limit at just 0.7.
A review of annual water quality reports of some of the larger water suppliers in Baldwin County show that all are within the 0.7 to 1.2 ppm range.
In Fairhope, the water department’s 2013 Water Quality Report, which is the most recent one posted on the city website, shows a detected fluoride range of 0.93 to 1.08 ppm, with an average of 0.98.
Other systems in the county reported the following fluoride levels on either their 2013 or 2014 annual water quality report:
- North Baldwin Utilities — 0.4 to 0.7 ppm with an average of .57
- Daphne Utilities — .75 ppm average
- Gulf Shores Utilities — .92 ppm average
- Orange Beach Water Authority — .91 ppm average
- Mobile Area Water & Sewer System — 0.9 to 1.2 ppm
Even though the Belforest Water System in Daphne does not add fluoride its 2014 Annual Water Quality Report show a fluoride level ranging from ND (not detected) to 0.82, which could be attributed to the erosion of natural deposits or discharge from fertilizer. Robertsdale Utilities does not have its water quality report available on the city website.