If there is one word that pushes buttons for Sandpoint residents these days, it is fluoride.
After years of debate, the Sandpoint City Council voted 4-2 last month to remove fluoride from the city’s water supply.
Council President John Reuter, one of the two dissenting members, said not only does he support keeping fluoride in the water, but he also is disappointed that a decision affecting virtually every citizen was not put to a citywide vote.
“Local citizens should have been given the opportunity to vote rather than have a few politicians overturn nearly 60 years of a successful policy,” said Reuter, who has suggested two times – once to a previous council and again to the current members – that the issue of water fluoridation be put to a public vote.
Why does Reuter support fluoridation?
“For the same reasons as why it’s supported by the American Medical Association, the American Dental Association and every U.S. Surgeon General since the 1950s,” said Reuter referring to the position that fluoridation of water is the most effective means to prevent tooth decay and that the studies regarding its impact and safety are closely monitored by these entities.
But others disagree.
In May 2009 some residents addressed the City Council urging them to remove fluoride from the city’s water supply.
One of them was Sandpoint resident Gerald Fluhrer, who said fluoride is not a nutrient nor does it serve to purify the water, according to minutes of the meeting. He urged the city to remove fluoride out of respect for individual rights and freedom of choice.
Also present at that meeting was resident Mary Baenen, who argued that fluoride is a chemical waste product that has never been approved for human ingestion by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The consensus among council members who voted last month in favor of removal of fluoride is that people should have the choice.
“I do not feel it is appropriate for a governmental agency to add anything to the water beyond what is needed to clean the water in an effort to make the water safe to drink. I understand that fluoride helps prevent tooth decay although I don’t think it is government’s role to determine one’s dental health needs with disregard for other known or speculated and unknown ramifications of any particular product,” said council member Justin Schuck. “The human body needs vitamin C too, but I don’t think it is appropriate to add that product to the water system either.”
Marsha Ogilvie said that for her it was also a matter of personal choice and indicated that due to the number of increasing studies pointing to the possibility that there may be health hazards related to fluoride consumption, the responsible position is to err on the side of caution and safety.
“Years down the road, further studies may confirm toxic effects, in which case the damage is already done,” said Ogilvie.
Councilwoman Jamie Davis says whether or not to ingest fluoride is not a decision that should be made by the government.
“More people are asserting their right to make their own choices,” said Davis. “I think a part of society has operated with the mindset that believes if government is doing it, it must be OK, and that government officials know what’s best for our health.”
Former city councilwoman and mayoral candidate Sue Haynes said she was disappointed in the vote to remove fluoride from the water.
“The arguments I heard before (when she was a council member), and that I’ve seen recently, all seem based on emotion and false information,” said Haynes. “When the Centers for Disease Control lists water fluoridation as one of the top 10 greatest public health achievements, and when all dentists and public health officials come out in support of fluoridation, the decision to remove this public benefit shouldn’t be taken lightly.”
She adds that water fluoridation has proven to be a safe and cost-effective way to dramatically improve a community’s dental health, which translates into an improvement of overall health.
“The people who will suffer most in the coming years are the poor in our community, and there are many.”
Steve Anderson is a Sandpoint dentist who supports fluoridation of the water, but said that Sandpoint is a unique place in that even before last month’s vote, the city did not add fluoride to the water during the summer months – usually May to September.
“The city does not put it (fluoride) in the water when they take it (the water) out of the lake,” said Anderson who adds that when he writes a prescription for fluoride he has to be sure to advise his patients that they should only take it during those months when fluoride is not being added to the city’s drinking supply; an issue he will no longer have to deal with. “I’ve always been challenged by this because it’s hard to tell people the right amount to take. It’s a complex issue because most public water systems are the same all year.”
Anderson said he has patients on both sides of the issue and respects both views, but thinks fluoride in the water has great benefits.
He said that the time between six months to sixteen years of age is a critical time period for a child to receive the benefits of fluoride.
I am concerned about the impact this decision will have on the health of the younger members of our community – especially in light of the economy.
With the increasing cost of medical insurance, many are forced to go without. When this happens, visits to the doctor and dentist tend to decrease and therefore the only source of fluoride a child may receive during those critical years is through the water supply.
With 70 percent of the country having fluoride in its water, it is our children here in Sandpoint who will suffer by not having it.
Haynes advises that it is important to not get caught up in the emotional side of whatever topic is before the council.
“I’d recommend that council members consider the facts,” said Haynes. “Something I don’t think they did with this vote.”
As for Anderson, he would have liked to see fluoride remain in the city’s water even though it is not year round.
“Getting it (fluoride) for eight months is better than not getting it at all,” he said.