A time zone away, in Pagosa Springs, Colo., the community of about 8,000 decided to radically alter its drinking water.
It’s not what was added to the water, but what was taken out: fluoride, a compound often put into water to prevent tooth decay.
“It was an emotionally-charged decision,” said Gene Tautges, spokesman for the Pagosa Springs Water and Sanitation district. “The opposition was adamant, but it all came down to the horses.”
Those in favor of removing the fluoride said the water additive was revealing itself to be harmful to the horse population.
“The next morning (after the vote), all the pumps were shut off and the chemical was taken out,” Tautges said.
That was in April 2005, and Tautges admits there has been no effort to track the effect of the decision on the community.
Fluoride has been the center of controversy since earlier this year when studies revealed the chemical could be the cause of bone cancer, lower IQs and osteoporosis.
Despite the reports, dentists and water experts say fluoride poses no threat when consumed normally.
Fluoride made its way into the water tap for most Americans after 1945, when Grand Rapids, Mich., became the
first city to have the compound added.
Florence and Sheffield began adding fluoride to their water supplies in 1968, and Muscle Shoals and Tuscumbia soon followed.
The Environmental Protection Agency sets the rate at which fluoridation is safe for consumption, which is .7 to 1.2 parts per million. Statewide, the fluoride rate in water is between .9 and 1.4 parts per million.
James Congleton checks the fluoride levels in water in Lauderdale and Colbert counties each month for the Alabama Department of Public Health.
“There has been fluoride in water for over 60 years, and study after study has been done on it,” he said. “All of the evidence and studies I know of have shown fluoride to be safe and effective treatment for tooth decay.”
Congleton also said the EPA is planning to change its fluoride threshold from .7 to 1.2 ppm to .47 to 1.3 ppm. The EPA has a maximum threshold of 4 ppm, and some systems across the country, including those in Texas and South Carolina, meet this amount.
Using fluoride as part of a daily dental regimen is not a cause for concern, according to the American Dental Association, nor are fluoride rinses.
The problem usually occurs when individuals consume too much fluoride, perhaps as part of the drinking supply.
Dental fluorosis, which is the result of excessive fluoride intake as tooth enamel forms, can cause a discoloration of teeth in young children.
Other possibilities include acute and chronic toxicity from fluoride use. The former would mean the consumption of mass amounts of fluoride during a short time; the latter would be a cumulative effect of too much fluoride and could cause skeletal fluorosis, or a weakening in bone density.
“In the United States as a whole, there have only been five confirmed cases of skeletal fluorosis in the past 35 years,” Congleton said. “We’re not even sure if those are the result of too much fluoride.”
Dentists and the ADA agree that the benefits of fluoride outweigh the potential risks.
William McClanahan has a dental practice on Helton Drive in Florence. The EPA’s recommended amount is enough to keep tooth decay at bay but not enough to cause problems, he said.
“One part per million is nothing to be concerned about,” he said. “I’d be more worried if someone were taking a fluoride supplements, too.”
McClanahan’s advice is for parents to watch their young children brush their teeth so no toothpaste is ingested in the process. Toothpaste now comes with warning labels on the back about the harm that can come from ingesting the product as a result of the fluoride content.
“They’ll have to come up with some long-term studies for me to change my mind about fluoride,” he said. “I would have to see how this could be detrimental.”
Communities like Pagosa Springs aren’t alone in their choice to reject fluoridation.
Michael Connett, with the Fluoride Action Network, said 70 communities nationwide have taken the same route since 2000.
He contends that fluoride, which is also used as a pesticide and insecticide, has no benefits when consumed as a part of a water supply.
“The benefits dentists are taking about are when fluoride is applied directly to teeth,” he said. “The largest source of fluoride exposure for people is in their water because we have so much fluoridation in this country.”
The study that linked fluoride to bone cancer has put the mineral back into the spotlight, and Connett said there are ways to avoid it creeping into your diet.
“Organic foods will have less fluoride than regular foods, so the goal is to avoid more processed food,” he said, adding that a reverse osmosis filter can take the fluoride out of drinking water.
Dr. Stuart Lockwood, the state dental director for the Alabama Department of Public Health, said Alabama has no plans to remove fluoride from any of the 328 systems that use the process.
“We still think there’s credible evidence that (fluoridation) is safe,” he said. “We still have enough tooth decay in the state” to warrant adding fluoride to drinking water.
McClanahan said there is an antidote to fluoride, if you think you’re getting too much.
“Just drink milk,” he said.