On Tuesday evening, the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District Board of Directors allowed a group of concerned citizens, headed by Cathy and Wayne Justus, to voice their concerns regarding fluoridation of the district’s water.

There were about 40 community members present, apparently all opposed to fluoridation. Cathy began her talk by posing two questions to the board members: Do you know what fluoride is? and Where does it come from?

There were murmured answers from a couple of the board members, but the only concrete answer was provided by PAWSD director Gene Tautges, who said that the fluoride compound they use comes from Japan. Cathy pointed out that Japan does not fluoridate their own water supply. She explained that fluorine is a gas; fluoride is anything it bonds to.

Justus then went on to recount the sordid history of fluoride: it was once used as rat poison in the 1930s; in the 1940s it was released through manufacturing chimneys in such high quantities that it poisoned livestock and crops. The government then started requiring “chimney scrubbers” to remove the worst of the contaminants from the smoke.

Cathy says that it is the by-product of these chimney scrubbers, a slag-like substance called gravy, that is the source of the fluoride that is added to the nation’s drinking water supply. Important to note, Justus says, is that the gravy compound also includes traces of such ingredients as arsenic and silica, which are not listed on the labeling. “This is highly toxic waste and has NEVER been approved by the FDA,” she said.

The reason for Cathy’s interest in water-supply fluoridation? Horses. The Justuses have been raising expensive Quarter Horses practically their entire lives, first in California, then in Pagosa when they moved here more than 20 year ago. Their horses come from long lines of champions and have been ranked among the best in the world. Her voice breaking at times, Cathy described a history of equine problems ranging from Cushing’s Disease (a thyroid condition) to neurological disorders to frequent colics to lameness to infertility – problems that began to plague their horses within a few years of moving to Pagosa Springs and drinking city water. According to Cathy, none of the local vets could explain what could be causing such a vast array of symptoms.

Through her own extensive research, Cathy began to suspect that fluoridated water could be the culprit and, after losing her fifth and favorite horse last fall, she decided to find someone who could verify or deny her hunch. After much searching she found Dr. Lennart Krook, D.V.M., Ph.D., Emeritus Professor of Pathology at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. He had published many works in peer-reviewed journals on the toxicity of fluoride in cows, sheep and other livestock. The Justuses sent off a leg bone from the mare to Cornell for testing. A 17-page report arrived a month later, conclusion: the horse died of fluoride toxicity.

After nearly an hour of detailed testimony from Cathy, board member Karen Wessels asked her to wrap it up. At that point Cathy’s husband Wayne said, “The issue here is choice. If people want fluoride they can get it elsewhere. I don’t want it in my water and I have to have it.” Several other audience members echoed similar sentiments and the board was asked when fluoridation was started in Pagosa Springs.

Carrie Campbell said it began in the mid 1980s at the urging of local doctors and dentists. The board felt the proven benefits to teeth and bones outweighed any possible side effects. Another audience member asked if it’s required by law. Gene Tautges replied that it is a voluntary process; there are no federal or state requirements.

The next day, I placed calls to the Pagosa Springs Family Medicine Center and all four dentists to get their official positions on drinking water fluoridation. Dentist Dr. Thompson said, “It’s the very best thing we can do as a community. It has been done for 60 years. It reduces decay by 50%. I’m sure supportive of it and it would be a shame to discontinue it.” He directed me to the ADA web site for more information about studies on the benefits of fluoride.

Dr. Rutherford, also a local dentist, concurred. “Very few things have been so widely researched and for so long that it’s crystal clear since the 1950s,” he said. Dr. Rutherford said that prescription fluoride is hard to monitor and hard to get the quantity right. He said it costs about 17 cents a year per person to prevent thousands of cavities and that water is easy to monitor. “It’s virtually impossible to get too much like you get in a lot of well water that has too high of a fluoride content. Fluoride supplements are expensive by comparison and harder to monitor.”

He said that the point of freedom of choice in healthcare is the only argument that holds any water. But, Dr. Rutherford said, “There are easy alternatives to opt out. People can get filters. It’s so cost effective and so safe that it’s crazy not to [fluoridate the water].”

In reality, the only way to remove fluoride from water is through distillation. Whole-house distiller systems can cost upwards of $5000; kitchen models can be had for much less. But if you’re only filtering the fluoride out of the water you drink you are still absorbing it through your skin when you bathe and from clothing and bedding that is laundered in city water. And distilling enough water for livestock is an impractical idea.

The third member of the medical profession I spoke with was Dr. John Picarro, a physician with Pagosa Springs Family Medicine Center. “As a clinic we support the use, but not the excessive use, of fluoride,” he said. “People should not exceed the recommended daily amount. It’s very hard to control.”Dr. Picarro was clear that he is not against the use of fluoride, in fact since he is on well water he gives a supplement to his own children because “it’s important for healthy teeth development.” From a doctor’s standpoint, he says that mass fluoridation makes it harder to know who is or isn’t a candidate for fluoride treatment. “Kids on well water are easiest to treat. Kids on city water – how much do they drink? We could be under-helping them. It’s a gray zone on how much people are getting. How many parts per million are we getting? If it is taken out of the water, then people can talk about it with their health care provider.”

But while few would argue that small doses of fluoride may help prevent tooth decay in children between the ages of 6 months and 16 years, the jury appears to be out on possible deleterious side effects that happen when larger amounts of fluoride are consumed every day over the course of a lifetime.

Sodium fluoride, used widely in the U.S. to fluoridate water supplies, is among the 34 medicines currently under consideration for deletion from the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines. The decision will be forthcoming in March of this year. One of the studies listed under Sodium Fluoride at the agency’s website says, “It is also recommended that the safety of fluoride should be critically reassessed because fluoride is a potent chemical that modulates many key enzymes for life, is considered as mutagen and clastogen and appears carcinogenic in animals and in humans as shown in the animal and epidemiological studies.”

The American Water Works Association (PAWSD is a member) is “the authoritative resource for knowledge, information, and advocacy to improve the quality and supply of drinking water in North America and beyond.” While the group advocates fluoridation of public drinking water supplies, they acknowledge the following points:

* Despite fluoridation’s benefits to dental health, exposure to high levels of fluoride can cause dental fluorosis, a condition which leads to mottled tooth enamel, tooth discoloration, and in some cases erosion of effected teeth to the gumline.
* The CDC has disputed findings announced in October 1999 that using silicofluorides to fluoridate water can lead to increased lead concentrations in children.
* The US Department of Health and Human Services has not recognized a causal link between low-level fluoride exposure and occurrences of cancer, brain damage or osteoporosis.
* The USEPA has found a link between prolonged exposure to high-level fluoride concentration and skeletal fluorosis, a condition similar to osteoporosis, as well as digestive and nervous system disorders. Although the amount of fluoride and duration of exposure necessary to cause such ailments differs from person to person, there is no data linking these ailments to the level of fluoride found in drinking water.

Back to Japan, the source of our fluoride. A letter from Toru Nagayama of the Japanese Environment Agency dated March 8, 2000, gave the two main reasons why Japan does not fluoridate their municipal water supplies:

“Japanese government and local water suppliers have considered there is no need to supply fluoridated water to ALL users because 1) impacts of fluoridated water on human health depends on each human being so that inappropriate application may cause health problems of vulnerable people, and 2) there is [sic] other ways for the purpose of dental health care, such as direct F-coating on teeth and using fluoridated dental paste and these ways should be applied at one’s free will.”

Fluoridation was recently halted in Telluride at the behest of local dentists Terry Brown, Gary Conrad and Ken Hodges, along with Dr. David Homer. They submitted a letter to the local government that said, “The undersigned believe that fluoride, in the proper dosage, for all children up to 16 is beneficial in reducing the incidence of dental decay,” the letter reads. “However, due to the wide variety of water sources in our area, proper fluoride dosing is impossible to achieve, and whereas there’s no benefit to adults consuming fluoridated water and there may, indeed, be deleterious effects, we respectfully request that the town of Telluride cease supplementing the town’s water supply with fluoride.”

Citing problems with ascertaining the amount of fluoride going into the water, the dentists suggest that it would be healthier and safer to take the supplement out of the system and let parents choose whether to dose their kids individually.

In the 160+ communities where fluoridation programs have been discontinued or voted out before they’re started, the heart of the issue almost always boils down to freedom of choice, giving the individual the right to weigh associated risks and benefits.

Cathy Justus got another report back from Dr. Krook yesterday from a study of several of her horses’ baby teeth. He said the level of fluoride in the teeth is alarming, and suggested that her horses may be the proverbial canaries in a coal mine. Cathy is interested in hosting an educational community meeting for anyone who would like more information on this issue. You can contact her at 264-4462 for additional information.

As to the future of fluoridated water in Pagosa Springs, there will more than likely be prolonged public debate before the matter is decided one way or another. Two board members were absent from last Tuesday’s meeting, so no major decisions could be made as to how to proceed.

The next PAWSD board meeting will be held on February 8. Gene Tautges said that the agenda for that meeting will be posted at the PAWSD web site on the Friday afternoon prior to the meeting, but he didn’t say for sure whether fluoridation would be a topic of discussion. He said that if the board knows ahead of time that so many people will be coming to the meeting they will move it to a larger room upstairs.

[Editor’s Note: Gene Tautges offered the following corrections to the above article: “Gene Tautges is the Assistant Manager of PAWSD, not an elected board member. I did not state that the type of fluoride used at PAWSD was from Japan. The Board of Directors could instruct staff to find a larger facilty in which to hold a meeting if necessary, as there is no larger room upstairs as stated in the article.” We apologize for these errors in the article.]