Carson City — Unless it’s the gold standard, few issues draw out the hard-core libertarians like the issue of fluoride in the water.
And Nevada, particularly the older and more settled northern part, has a strong contingent of those individuals who tend to liberally connect the dots on issues.
So the hearing room for testimony on Senate Bill 311, which would require the fluoridation of water in Washoe County, filled up quickly Monday.
The story goes back to 1999, when the Legislature introduced a bill that required fluoridation of water. Then-Assemblywoman Chris Giunchigliani (now a Clark County commissioner) recalls the John Birch Society coming after her and people leaving messages accusing her of trying to poison them.
“It was not pleasant,” Giunchigliani testified Monday.
To get the bill passed, she changed it to require only Clark County to add fluoride. That was done starting in 2001.
Clinging to a persistent mistrust of the natural mineral, the rest of the state has not gone to fluoride.
In 2002, 58 percent of Washoe County voters said no to fluoride.
Monday’s testimony before the Senate Committee on Health and Education began with graphic pictures showing the effect of refusal to fluoridate.
Mark Rosenberg, a former U.S. Public Health Service dental director, now with St. Mary’s Hospital in Reno, offered slides of children’s decaying teeth. He came armed with statistics — 60 percent of the U.S. population lives in an area with fluoridated water. These areas have 30 percent less childhood decay than nonfluoridated areas; Washoe County children in the Headstart program had 15 percent more cavities than Las Vegas Headstart children. (It should be noted that this is one of the rare areas in which Clark County ranks better than the rest of the state.)
Rosenberg talked about baby root canals.
“It’s important to protect the dental health of the population, particularly children,” testified Sen. Bernice Matthews, D-Reno, the bill’s sponsor.
Senators knew opposition was coming, though. Near the front of the audience sat mothers of a certain age, good posture and primly dressed, clutching Internet printouts.
Sen. Dennis Nolan, R-Las Vegas, asked dentist Tyree Davis if he has seen any negative effect of fluoridation.
“I’ve never heard of anyone growing a third eye, or anything like that,” he joked. Not getting much of a laugh, he got more serious. “Certainly no problems I’ve heard of.”
Then the opposition began testifying.
Michael Gerber, a Reno homeopathic doctor, said fluoride is actually an industrial waste product that U.S. industries favor putting in drinking water supplies as a way to dispose of it. He also claimed fluoride has been associated with osteoporosis, bone cancer, Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Nolan, however, noted that two or three generations have grown up with fluoride in their water. “There haven’t been any deformities that I’ve heard of,” Nolan said.
Janine Hansen, head of the libertarian group Nevada Eagle Forum and president of the Independent American Party, testified about the dangers of fluoride, saying they include a risk of suicide. “Brain function is vulnerable to fluoride,” she said. “This is about civil liberties, medicating people through their water,” she said.
And thus the crux of the issue — this is government ordering you to ingest something even if you don’t want it.
Assemblyman Bernie Anderson, D-Sparks, agreed that there was something particularly Nevada about the opposition to fluoridation.
“There’s a distrust of anything that the government says is good,” he said. “Why are you a better guardian of my health than I am? It’s reflexive.”
Still, Anderson, a native Nevadan, compared it to immunizations that helped eliminate diseases such as smallpox.
Giunchigliani, asked about the opposition after the hearing, had a different take.
“It says we’re very backward,” she said.
The dentists and public health advocates made their earnest arguments.
Rosenberg seemed confounded by the opposition.
“I don’t understand what they’re thinking,” he said. He noted that no fluoride in the water increases customers for the dentists. “Maybe it’s the dental association funding all this opposition.”