TOPEKA – Lawmakers heard a barrage of criticism about fluoridated water Tuesday, but the decision they make may come down to the issue of local control.
A Senate bill would direct Wichita and Hutchinson to add fluoride to their water supplies if grant money is available to cover start-up costs.
Those two cities have the only water supplies in Kansas with more than 10,000 service connections that are not fluoridated. The seven other cities in that category all add fluoride, and some of them have for decades.
Public health officials have long endorsed fluoridating water as a way to reduce cavities.
The issue has always been contentious in Wichita, however. When voters last had their say in 1978, they rejected fluoridation by more than 6,000 votes.
The Wichita City Council opposes the bill, citing an ordinance that the city’s water supply will not be fluoridated “without a binding vote of the people.”
“It attempts to overthrow the will of the people at the local level,” Denny Burgess, a lobbyist for the city, told the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee.
About 62 percent of Kansans have fluoridated drinking water, according to the American Dental Association.
Newton, El Dorado, Clearwater and Wellington are among the south-central Kansas cities that drink fluoridated water.
Critics, however, charge that most of the fluoride used in water supplies is a byproduct of phosphate fertilizer production and is laced with arsenic, lead and other contaminants.
“In this case, the public health service has made a great mistake,” said Albert Burgstahler, a retired University of Kansas chemistry professor.
Burgstahler and others cited a number of studies they said show that fluoride is ineffective in fighting tooth decay and link it to Down syndrome, lead poisoning and even violent crime.
Fluoridation advocates dismiss those studies as “junk science.”
“If we had any fear at all that it would have any detrimental effects, we’d be the first ones out,” said Greg Hill, director of programs and services for the Kansas Dental Association.
“This is the kind of stuff they pull every time,” added Sally Finney, executive director of the Kansas Public Health Association, of fluoridation’s opponents.
Still, the competing scientific arguments put lawmakers in an awkward position.
Sen. James Barnett of Emporia, a physician, asked fluoride critics to supply the specific studies they cited or tell lawmakers where they could be found.
“I think it’s important to review the science and take out the emotion,” he said.
He noted after the meeting, however, that the same medical community that once broadly recommended hormone therapy for women has now reversed itself.
“I’m a little cautious with these scientific studies,” he said.
Wichita is one of the biggest cities in the nation that has not fluoridated its water.
Cities that do fluoridate include New York, Los Angeles and Chicago and, in Kansas, Topeka, Lawrence and Kansas City.
Advocates contend that savings in dental bills far outweigh the cost of fluoridation, estimated nationally at 51 cents a person.