TRENTON – Fluoride is going on trial in New Jersey tomorrow.
The crusade by government, dental and medical groups to inject fluoride into all public water supplies to ward off tooth decay will collide with groups that assert government has no business “mass medicating” the public with the compound, subjecting people to myriad attendant risks.
Experts on either side will line up before the state’s Public Health Council in Trenton in a rare public clash in the fluoride debate.
Some of those involved say it is the first time national representatives of the warring factions will face each other in the same room since congressional hearings in 1977.
At stake is mandatory fluoridation for 8.5 million people.
With about one in five New Jerseyans living in a community with fluoridated water, the state ranks fourth-lowest in the nation for those with fluoridation. It will drop down one slot when the figures are updated and Utah moves from the bottom, surpassing New Jersey.
There is no fluoridated water in Camden County. In Burlington, fluoride is added at McGuire Air Force Base and in Willingboro, and in portions of Mount Laurel, Chesterfield and Westampton Townships. In Gloucester County, more than half the residents get naturally occurring fluoride in their water.
Fluoridated water supplies in Pennsylvania include those in Philadelphia, Lower Bucks County, Coatesville, Downingtown, Kennett Square, Phoenixville, West Chester, Pottstown and Chester.
“It is kind of astonishing,” Arthur Meisel, executive director of the New Jersey Dental Association, said of New Jersey’s place near the bottom of the list.
Those for and against fluoridation say they share a problem: a perception that water already is fluoridated.
Nationwide, about two of three people live in a community with fluoridated water. In Pennsylvania, 54 percent of the population gets fluoridated water.
Fluoridation of public water supplies began in 1945 in Grand Rapids, Mich., and expanded significantly in the 1950s. Philadelphia began fluoridation in 1955.
The concept is that a tiny bit of fluoride in water – 1 part per million – helps fend off tooth decay. The federal government asserts that every $1 invested in fluoridation saves $38 in dental care.
The benefits, the government says, are greatest for children but continue throughout life.
“We’re not aware of any new science that would change our recommendations and conclusions that fluoride is both safe and effective,” said William R. Maas, director of the division of oral health at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Part of our problem is getting people to realize there’s a tremendously successful preventative measure, and a third of the country isn’t getting it.”
The CDC, which calls fluoridation one of 10 great public-health achievements of the 20th century, wants to get the nationwide figure to 75 percent by 2010.
That makes New Jersey a key battleground.
Responding to a petition from the New Jersey Dental Association to require fluoridation of public water supplies in the state, the Public Health Council will hear only from invited experts.
“When the Centers for Disease Control, which I certainly view as a responsible, neutral, very highly credible body, has been reviewing this over and over and finds that fluoridation is safe and effective, that’s where I’m looking,” said Meisel of the state dental association. “It prevents a preventable disease… and saves money. It absolutely seems like it’s a no-brainer.”
Council chairman Robert Pallay, vice chairman of the family medicine department at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, said that even though he believed fluoridation was a good preventive measure, he recognized that other views existed.
“I’m trying the best I can to wipe away my predisposition to thinking it’s a good thing,” he said. “I’m trying to go into it saying I don’t know the right answer here.”
He expected the council to reach a decision in two to three months.
Should the council require fluoridation, it could take years for it to be in place statewide.
Fluoridation typically costs less than a dollar a year per resident, according to the CDC.
One of those intent on convincing Pallay and other council members that mandatory fluoridation would be a mistake is J. William Hirzy, a chemist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency who speaks on behalf of his union – not the agency.
He said he would present studies to the council showing the dangers of fluoridation, including heightened risks of cancer and bone and brain damage.
“So many people in the media, and so many public officials, rely on assurances from people who claim authority,” Hirzy said. “Without the U.S. government behind it, this policy would have never taken off.”
He said he was not against all uses of fluoride – although he was not a user.
“There is some benefit to fluoride levels in toothpastes, mouthwashes and dental varnishes,” Hirzy said. “That is a matter of personal choice. When it goes into the public water supply, you’ve got to drink the stuff that comes out of the tap.”
He said he distilled the water in his house.
Groups including the Fluoride Action Network and its affiliate, the New Jersey Citizens Opposing Forced Fluoridation (NJCOFF), must square off against dental associations, medical societies, the CDC and the surgeon general. They often win.
One of their arguments is that fluoride is already in lots of products that people consume.
Any product made using the local water supply in an area that’s fluoridated will include fluoride – which could mean, they say, that people are unwittingly overdosing on fluoride.
“It’s amazing that they’re still talking about putting it in the drinking water,” said Nancy Browne Coleman, president of NJCOFF. “We just don’t think any government has the right to put it in the drinking water and medicate the entire population.”
Maas of the CDC, who is scheduled to appear tomorrow, is dismissive of the opposition’s claim that science is on their side.
“There are people that are distrustful of government, that are distrustful of science, and there are people who are suspicious of everything,” he said. “There’s science, and then there’s this other stuff.”
He said that the CDC and other government agencies take a consensus view of science, but that some scientists will have differing views.
Contact staff writer Mitch Lipka firstname.lastname@example.org.