After a nearly two-year lapse, the Sewerage & Water Board has resumed adding fluoride to New Orleans’ drinking water, but the agency has only enough of the cavity-fighting compound to last a few weeks.
Water board officials, who failed to notify the public until The Times-Picayune inquired about it last month, said Thursday that they managed to buy a 10- to 14-day supply recently through a third-party distributor, overcoming a nationwide shortage that had halted deliveries since Hurricane Katrina.
Purification plants Uptown and in Algiers restored the additive to their treatment processes Wednesday.
But keeping up the fluoride treatments is far from a sure thing.
Because of the strained market, the water board has failed to attract any bidders to a new supply contract, and officials’ attempts to negotiate a deal with individual suppliers have flopped.
Indeed, this week’s purchase may have owed to luck, said Mike Musso, whose Zachary-based firm, Thornton, Musso & Bellemin, secured the slim supply.
“I don’t know how long it will last,” he said. “The fluoride market is real tight.”
Marvin Russell, the S&WB’s water purification superintendent, said he is hopeful the agency will be able to obtain single shipments at least once every two weeks until year’s end, when the expiration of annual contracts may allow the water board to get back into the supply loop.
“We don’t have a contract. We don’t have a guarantee, but we believe that on the spot market, with proper notice, we can get what we need until we can achieve a long-term contract,” Russell said.
Until then, the water board vowed to notify the public whenever fluoride vanishes from the water supply, according to a prepared statement issued Thursday.
The S&WB, which started adding fluoride to tap water in 1974, had kept the absence of fluoride in the water quiet until last month. At that time, executive director Marcia St. Martin said the agency chose not to notify the public because officials believed they would find a supplier.
She also said that because American Dental Association guidelines are not based on the fluoride content of tap water, residents who follow those rules would not be affected.
Some state and local dental professionals criticized the lack of publicity, saying at least physicians and dentists should have been notified so they could have prescribed fluoride supplements, particularly to children.
Days after the deficiency was exposed, city health director Dr. Kevin Stephens penned a letter to local health-care providers, including details of fluoride supplement options. Stephens also listed links to Web sites of fluoride suppliers and asked health professionals to help the water board find a contractor.
Though officials on Thursday applauded the securing of the limited fluoride supply, they also bemoaned the product’s price tag, which they said has nearly quadrupled since the summer of 2005.
This week’s shipment of 3,908 gallons of liquid fluoride cost $9,673, S&WB spokesman Robert Jackson said. The same volume, he said, cost $2,693 before Katrina.
Prior to the storm, the water board bought fluoride from Lucier Chemical Industries of Jacksonville Beach, Fla. The company provided the product from 1999 to 2005 at a total cost of $519,824.
But deliveries stopped after Katrina. By the time the water board was ready to restart them in mid-2006, the nation’s fluoride supply had dwindled, as the main U.S. producer sustained equipment breakdowns and a drop in output due to poor-quality raw material.
The shortfall sparked a consumer frenzy, with water utilities across the country rushing to stockpile fluorides, leaving laggards — including cities such as New Orleans that were out of the loop — without any supply at all.
S&WB officials in July solicited the assistance of the state Department of Health and Hospitals and local professional associations to seek out fluoride suppliers willing to ink a deal with the water board. Jackson said Thursday, however, that those connections did not help land the current shipment.
“It was actually the efforts of staff trying to track down a supplier,” he said.
Russell said he tapped Musso’s firm because it has nearly two decades of experience in Louisiana providing water-purification chemicals. Musso, however, said he could not recall the name of the fluoride supplier selling to Thornton, Musso & Bellemin.
Jackson and Russell, meanwhile, were skittish about naming the firm they believe provided the current supply to Musso except to say they know the fluoride is “certified material.”
“It’s still an extremely dicey market. We don’t want him to disappear because he’s uneasy with having his name in the paper,” Jackson said.
Besides buying a more expensive product, the water board now also must buy more fluoride to treat the additional water it has to pump out, despite a reduced population, to compensate for tens of millions of gallons of treated tap water that spills out of leaky pipes every day, Russell said.
Before the storm, the S&WB added about 417 pounds of fluoride daily to 120 million gallons of water, he said. To maintain a similar chemical composition, the recent purchase included 592 pounds of fluoride to produce more than 130 million gallons a day, Russell said.
Russell said the water board cannot extend its supply — and save money — by feeding a smaller volume of fluoride into its water supply every day.
“We can’t just cut back” and still meet the recommended therapeutic dose of 0.7 parts per million, he said. Fluoride occurs naturally in the Mississippi River at concentrations of 0.2 to 0.5 parts per million.