The fluoridation of San Antonio’s water was a contentious source of debate for 15 years before its final approval by voters in 2000.
For years people were afraid of adverse effects despite the benefits shown by the scientific community. Until 2002, San Antonio was the largest city in the U.S. without fluoride in its public water supply.
Opponents such as Kay Turner, who spearheaded the opposition, said that this distinction should be a point of pride for San Antonio residents. But it was an embarrassment for former councilman and Mayor Ed Garza, who supported fluoridation.
“Especially given our demographic with all of the dental issues … in our community — it was clear we needed to put it before the voters to give them the information, and let them make the decision,” said Garza. “She (Turner) was prepared with her data and her info. I respected her for being a formidable leader in the city, but I was confident that voters would make the right decision, given enough time to go over the information and get educated on the issue.”
Nelson Wolff was elected to the city council in 1987, right after the first attempt to fluoridate San Antonio’s water had failed. Although he had no primary role in its implementation, he did campaign in favor of having fluoride in the municipal water supply.
“It was what I would consider a devastating defeat for dental and public health,” said Wolff.
When the voters finally passed it into law, Wolff was shocked by how close the vote still was with only a 52.65 percent majority.
“All of the military bases have had fluoridation in their water way before us, and no one really cared about that,” said Wolff. “It’s one of those spooky scary things that people get wrapped up about and refuse to look at the issues.”
Henry Cisneros had tried to fluoridate the water in 1986 but was defeated. The fear of cancer from fluoridation, supposed communist plots to control Americans and big government tyranny in small communities barred him from being able to pass it during his time as mayor along with the novelty of trying to pass citywide legislation in that decade.
“I think a good part of that was my fault. We later learned how best to organize when we wanted to pass something citywide. We hadn’t quite learned it by that point, so we didn’t make our best all-out effort, but thankfully later under Howard Peak we were finally able to break down the wall of opposition,” said Cisneros. “People like Ed Garza, who was up and coming in city council, were able to make the case to the public in an effective way.”
Turner and her constituents raised awareness of their cause through a grass-roots effort. She and other people against the chemical called it poison and maintained that the health risks associated with fluoride outweighed the benefits.
However, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has said that fluoridation of public water supply is among the top 10 public health achievements of the 20th century. The United States has a national goal of having fluoridated water for more than 80 percent of Americans by 2020.
Having healthy levels of fluoride in public drinking water prevents tooth decay and strengthens teeth, according to the CDC. Additionally, various international research institutions have continued to study the effects of fluoride and how people have developed with it over time.
The most common side effect is dental fluorosis, a condition in which people get darkened or stained teeth. The main concern with this result of excess exposure to fluoride, typically through toothpastes that contain the chemical, is aesthetic.
A lifetime of excessive exposure can cause an increased likelihood in bone fractures among adults and may result to bones having pain and tenderness, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Because of the potential problems that can occur with excess fluoridation, Congress passed the Clean Water Drinking Act in 1974, which mandates that the EPA should determine the level of contaminants in drinking water at which no adverse health effects are likely to occur.
Fluoridated water reduces tooth decay in children and adults by 25 percent. In communities that have fluoridated water, children have an average of two fewer decaying teeth than areas without access to it, according to the CDC.
Fluoride itself, maintenance and lab testing cost the San Antonio Water System $592,820 in 2012. That averages out to 42 cents per person according to the 1.38 million people living in San Antonio at the time.
Kevin Donly, D.D.S., professor and chair of the Department of Developmental Dentistry at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio has been pro fluoridation throughout his entire career.
“… lower socioeconomic kids had higher rates of dental caries (cavities), and what I love about fluoridated water is that you get it no matter where you are — if you drink it at school or at home,” said Dr. Donly. “I recommend people who have any questions go to the American Dental Association website and read about fluoridation. They have done exhaustive research, and gosh, it’s just overwhelming positive benefit.”