The Madison Water Utility board last year postponed a review of its fluoridation policy. Madison started fluoridation in 1948 as a way to prevent tooth decay, but fluoride has come under increasing scrutiny over its effects on brain development.
A group of water quality advisers is recommending that Madison continue adding fluoride to the city’s drinking water.
The board had asked the technical advisory committee, a group of mostly retired scientists appointed by the board, to make a recommendation based on a federal report on neurological effects of fluoride. But the National Toxicology Program has yet to finalize its report.
During a contentious meeting Monday night, the committee voted 2-1 with one abstention to support the current level of 0.7 milligrams per liter.
Fluoridation is optional under state law, but water utilities that do add fluoride must keep the level between 0.6 and 0.8 milligrams per liter.
Greg Harrington, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UW-Madison, and Jocelyn Hemming, an aquatic toxicologist with the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene, voted to continue adding the naturally occurring mineral to the water supply.
“I don’t see a reason to change that fluoridation policy right now until there is really good, sound evidence from the state to help guide us otherwise,” Harrington said.
Dr. Henry Anderson, a former state epidemiologist for occupational and environmental health, opposed the recommendation, arguing there is not enough information on tooth decay or how much fluoride is in people’s systems.
“My concern is we don’t have any data,” Anderson said. “What is the utilization of alternative sources of fluoride in Madison? … We don’t have a clue as to what fluoride levels are in urine.”
Sharon Long, a retired microbiologist with the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene, abstained.
“I’d like to see a time horizon,” Long said.
It’s unclear when the board will vote on the recommendation.
The board’s fluoridation policy calls for “regular reviews of the most current research on fluoride” at least once a decade.
Scores of people from across North America testified for and against fluoridation before the board voted unanimously in August 2020 to postpone its review of the policy, which was last revised in 2014.
Proponents, including dentists and public health experts, argued it is a safe and effective tool for preventative health, particularly for populations without access to good dental care, while others argued the risks to developing brains outweigh the benefits and that medication should be prescribed individually.
Organizations including the World Health Organization, American Medical Association, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Public Health Madison and Dane County have endorsed water fluoridation.
Dr. Russell Dunkel, the state dental director with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, told the committee there are families in Wisconsin who can’t afford toothpaste.
“This is their only source of fluoride,” he said.
But Brenda Staudenmaier, a Madison resident who has sued the Environmental Protection Agency in an effort to ban fluoridation, points to recent studies that found exposure to fluoridated water may lead to lower IQ scores in some children.
“The same thing happened with lead,” Staudenmaier said. “All of these people would crawl out of the woodwork and use their medical degrees and Ph.D.s to say there’s nothing neurotoxic about lead. We’re seeing the same thing with fluoride now.”