Fluoride Action Network

San Diego: Fluoridation hits a snag

Source: KPBS | January 6th, 2011 | By Tom Fudge

The communist plot has been delayed. Okay, I’m kidding. I just can’t resist a mention of the movie “Dr. Strangelove” when talking about fluoridation of water. (General Jack D. Ripper thought it was a plot to undermine our bodily fluids.) The City of San Diego was set to begin fluoridation last month. But D-Day (Dec. 22) was postponed due to workplace safety concerns.

Jim McVeigh is senior supervisor at the Otay water treatment plant, one of three water plants in San Diego where fluoridation systems have been installed. Fluoridation requires adding hydroflourosilicic acid to the water supply. McVeigh says that chemical is safe in drinking water, at controlled levels, but dangerous when handled in bulk by water-plant employees.

“The chlorine in the water is also a bit dangerous to work with,” said McVeigh. “Most everything we deal with in large plants – the concentration is the issue. This is true of caustic soda we use to raise PH levels. These are chemicals that you have to treat with some respect.”

He couldn’t give me a date certain when fluoridation systems will be switched on in San Diego. But McVeigh was comfortable saying it would happen in the “next couple of months.”

I grew up in the Midwest, understanding that water supplies were fluoridated to give kids healthy teeth. I was surprised to learn, when I moved to San Diego 12 years ago, that fluoride had yet to arrive. Over the years of covering local news I’ve hosted radio talk shows about water fluoridation in which people called in with paranoid views that sounded very similar to General Ripper’s vision of communist infiltration. The callers also thought it would undermine our health.

It’s true that high levels of water fluoridation can cause fluorosis of the teeth, which produces a mottled dental surface that may be aesthetically unpleasing. Seriously high levels of fluoridation can cause skeletal fluorosis, which can damage bones and joints. But McVeigh says that’s not going to happen at the level of fluoridation the city will use, which will be .9 parts per million. Keep in mind that San Diego’s water supply already has a naturally-occurring fluoride content of .37 parts per million.

The lack of fluoridation in the Golden State was addressed in a piece of legislation called AB 733, passed in 1995, which said large municipal water systems must provide fluoridation if funding is provided by some outside source. In the case of San Diego that outside source is the First Five Commission, which got the grant funding from the California Endowment and the Proposition 10 tobacco tax.

Ellie Nadler, with the San Diego Fluoridation Commission, says California has been slow to go the fluoridation route. Nationwide, 70 percent of Americans get fluoridated water through the tap. Nadler is a dental hygienist who says the fluoride in saliva counteracts the effects of bacteria, and prevents tooth decay, by replacing minerals that are lost in the tooth enamel.

I asked McVeigh what he thought about fluoridation, this pending piece of San Diego water-treatment history. Will this strike a huge blow for oral and dental hygiene? Are we leaving behind the paranoia of the past?

He said while he had some personal views on the matter, he preferred to keep them to himself. “We have to do this, so we’re doing it,” said McVeigh.