Another fight about water has spilled out onto the local landscape, this one between forces who want to add fluoride to the local supply and those who don’t.

Water issues have been big news in these parts for many months now, issues have ranged from whether a large reservoir should be built in Northeast Texas to funnel water back to the Dallas area, to a lawsuit filed by seven towns in Bowie County for what they believe are significant overcharges. Some observers believe damages could run into many million dollars.

Into this soup add the fluoridation question, a question that was raised and defeated here in the mid-1980s but is as controversial as ever.

Some people think this is now a no-brainer and label those who are against it as chronic malcontents who rise up against anything progressive.

If it were only so simple.

Those opposed can throw out dozens of relevant arguments against adding this supplement to the water supply, yet they are fighting against popular opinion and a product that has a sparkling reputation and is highly regarded in the dental community. They are swimming against the conventional wisdom, a current that is particularly strong in this country, even though there have been some noteworthy defections from the pro-fluoride school of thought. They are taking on a pack of preconceptions.

We’ve all heard about fluoride. We associate it in a positive way with good dental care. We know it is good for the teeth. We know most major cities have taken the plunge.

The Center for Disease Control supports putting the stuff in our drinking water at certain levels. So does the American Dental Association. Those are medical heavyweights. So what’s not to like?

Many things, critics say, but of the most significant is the difference between putting it on teeth and ingesting it in the water. Drinking fluoride doesn’t do anything to fight tooth decay. Even most experts agree fluoride’s benefits are topical.

Dr. Hardy Limeback, biochemist, head of the Preventive Dentistry Department at the University of Toronto and president of the Canadian Association for Dental Research, has been a leading proponent of fluoride in drinking water for years. He broke rank with the pro-fluoride camp earlier this year (sic – 1999).

In an interview with Barry Forbes of The Tribune in Mesa, Ariz., Limeback said he was suspicious of the fluoride manufacturing process, concerned about toxins that get into the water system along with the fluoride, didn’t buy into the existing data supporting the value of fluoride in water systems in preventing tooth decay, and was convinced the additive damaged bones.

“Residents of cities that fluoridate have double the fluoride in their hip bones (compared to) the balance of the population,” he said, basing his comments on a study conducted at his university.

He also believes that cavity rates have been declining, regardless of fluoride, because of improved standards of living, improved dental care and better dental maintenance at home. He says Europe, which has almost fluoride-free water, is a prime example of this overall decline in dental decay, or closer to home, Vancouver.

“Here in Toronto we’ve been fluoridating for 36 years. Yet Vancouver-which has never fluoridated-has a cavity rate lower than Toronto’s.”

Critics say the newer studies, including one by the National Institute of Dental Research, support this conclusion, or at best the differences are marginal, and that the pro-fluoridation camp founded its conclusion on obsolete information.

“The CDC is basing its position on data that is 50 years old and questionable at best,” Limeback said. “Absolutely no one has done research on fluorosilicates, which is the junk they’re dumping into the drinking water.”

Across the water, the Belgian government, part of the European Union, will ban the sale of tablets and chewing gum that contain fluoride elements because of the risk they might cause a brittle bone condition.

According to the Associated Press, Public Health Minister Magda Aalvoet said scientific research shows fluoride can cause osteoporosis, or brittle bone disease, and its merits as an enemy of tooth decay were becoming increasingly questionable.

Belgium is believed to be the first country to stop the sale of fluoride tablets and drops, a move that is being questioned by the Belgian Dentist Federation.

These are but two examples.

Fluoride critics can and will roll out study after study like these to support their position, and proponents will do much the same. It will be dueling data in Texarkana. We probably all will drown in the statistics and splashy headlines before this debate ebbs and a decision is made.

But one thing neither side can dispute: If we put this stuff in our water system we’re all stuck with it. Once it is in the system, everyone who uses the system is exposed to it. It is no longer an option, it’s part of our lives. It’s an all or nothing deal.

For some, that is the beauty of fluoridation: Everyone gets a little fluoride everyday and nobody has to work very hard, or think very hard, or do very much to cause this to happen. We just go with the flow.

For critics, concerned about what this substance might do to their health, that is exactly what makes this method of distribution a curse.

And because we all have to live with this decision, because we can’t individually opt out, these critics should get full and due consideration.

Let’s take a hard look at the data before a decision is made. Let’s think on this before we drink on it.