If Boulder voters approve ballot measure 2B in November, the city will stop adding fluoride to the water supply for at least a year, the city’s utilities chief said.

“If it passes, our current practice does not meet and fulfill its terms and conditions, and so we would stop adding fluoride,” Ned Williams said.
The measure bars the city from adding any substance that would make the water supply exceed contamination goals established by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. Currently, the only substance to which that description applies is hydrofluorilific acid, which the city uses to fluoridate the water.

The measure also requires anything added to the water to have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

The measure’s backers say it’s “fluoride neutral,” and debate should focus on whether the city should be intentionally adding to its water supply a substance that contains arsenic and lead.

If the ballot measure passes, Williams said he would wait to hear if the City Council wanted him to investigate other sources of fluoride that would meet the initiative’s standards. Fluoride has been shown to provide protection against tooth decay.

“Changing to a different fluoride product will probably require us to change equipment, and we would probably not be adding fluoride for at least a year,” Williams said.

Last year, the city spent $36,000 on fluoride. Adding “pharmaceutical grade” fluoride could cost $1.3 million a year, he said.

‘A year is not too long’

The hydrofluorilific acid the city buys is an industrial byproduct that contains small amounts of lead and arsenic. The Environmental Protection Agency has set what’s known as the “maximum level contaminant goal” for lead and arsenic at zero as part of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

But those levels are goals, not requirements, EPA spokesman Dale Kemery said. Because there could be health effects from any levels of lead and arsenic, he said, ideally water-treatment utilities should strive to keep them out of the water.

Because removing them entirely isn’t always feasible, the EPA sets permissible levels by balancing human health risks from those substances against the cost to cities and towns of removing them from the water supply completely.

The agency allows arsenic levels of up to 10 parts per billion and lead levels of up to 15 parts per billion in drinking water.

By putting hydrofluorilific acid in the water, Boulder adds 0.1 part per billion of arsenic, or 100 times less than the EPA’s limit. For lead, it’s 3 parts per trillion, which is 5,000 times below the EPA limit.

Randall Weiner, one of the measure’s backers, said he’s glad to hear city officials say that adding fluoride even if the measure passes might be feasible. A yearlong delay in fluoridation wouldn’t be a big deal, he said.

“That’s a year without lead and arsenic in Boulder’s drinking water,” he said. “A year is not too long to wait to assure that only safe and effective substances are added to Boulder’s drinking water.”

Weiner said it’s one thing to argue, as the EPA does, that it could be ruinously expensive to try to remove all traces of a substance like lead or arsenic to meet the goal. But, he said, it doesn’t make sense that Boulder voluntarily adds to its water a substance that contains lead and arsenic.

‘No lower limit’

Dentists and doctors in Boulder have different takes on the measure.

Dr. Ed Christensen, a dentist with Foothills Pediatric Dentistry, said a patchwork approach to fluoride in the water supply makes it difficult for dentists to figure out how to treat their patients.

If fluoride was never added to water, it wouldn’t be too difficult to give every patient the appropriate dose or to recommend rinses or pills, he said.

But it’s harder to figure out how to treat a patient who lives in Erie, which doesn’t fluoridate, and works in Boulder, which does.

“It makes it very difficult for us as dentists to get the right amount of fluoride,” he said.

Dr. Pierre Brunschwig, of Helios Integrated Medicine in Boulder, said he thinks the benefits of fluoride are fairly well-established. But Boulder shouldn’t be using a substance that also includes toxins, he said.

Many substances — including arsenic — in exceedingly small amounts probably won’t hurt anyone, he said. But years of studies have shown that lead is toxic in even tiny amounts, particularly for fetuses and infants, he said.

“For neural development in infants and unborn fetuses, there probably is no lower limit that’s safe,” he said.