SHERIDAN, Wyo. — A Cold War “red scare” campaign against compulsory medication helped kill off five years of fluoridation in this northern Wyoming city in 1954.
The federal government has long since called fluoridation one of the greatest public health achievements of the 20th century. But it was only a few weeks ago that Sheridan’s City Council voted to resume fluoridating municipal drinking water.
Then, On Jan. 7, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced plans to lower the recommended level of fluoride in drinking water for the first time in nearly 50 years, based on a fresh review of the science that suggested some Americans, particularly children, may be getting too much fluoride.
Anti-fluoride activists here and nationwide said they feel some vindication.
“Not to say, ‘Ha-ha, We’re right.’ That’s not our way,” said Carol Kopf, spokeswoman for the Fluoride Action Network, one of several groups that maintain a steady drumbeat of anti-fluoridation news and information for those who go searching for it online.
Decades of studies have demonstrated fluoride’s ills, Kopf insisted, and the federal government only now seems to be waking up. “We understand the wheels of government move very slowly,” she said.
The government’s lower water fluoride recommendation clearly gives new energy to fluoridation opponents.
“We don’t need to live in a nanny state, have everything run for us. Whatever happened to our freedoms? They shouldn’t be dictating everything for us,” said Sheridan resident Jay Norwash.
So, why is fluoridation resuming, maybe, in this quintessentially Western small town of about 17,000 at the foothills of the Big Horn Mountains? The idea resurfaced with plans to upgrade the town’s water treatment plants. A public health dental hygienist, Janet Berry, argued that as long as Sheridan was improving its water plants, it ought to begin adding fluoride.
She collected signatures from 233 of the city’s medical professionals, including all but one of its 14 or so dentists.
“We know a lot about water fluoridation. This isn’t a new thing,” said Berry, whose state-funded job includes teaching good oral health habits to schoolchildren.
The council voted 4-2 on Dec. 20 to reintroduce fluoride after an absence of some 56 years.
Mayor Dave Kinskey said opponents to fluoride ought to think about other chemicals, such as chlorine, the city has been putting in the water for decades.
“Now, if the government is wrong about the fluoride, certainly those same folks should feel they’re wrong about the chlorine,” Kinskey said.
Kinskey also pointed to reports suggesting that every $1 spent on water fluoridation saves $38 in dental treatment, and that 948 children in Sheridan County last year incurred $304,000 in Medicaid dental costs.
“Somebody has to speak up for those children, and what kind of choice or what kind of option they have, especially in those years, when that fluoride – that little bit of extra fluoride – would do them the most good,” he said.
That particular argument sticks in the craw of people like Erin Adams – “pretty arrogant,” she calls it – who said one reason she and her family moved to Sheridan from California eight years ago was that her community in the San Francisco Bay area was considering fluoridation.
“Wyoming seems like a sort of independent, leave-me-alone state,” she said. “Even people who are even neutral on the subject think, ‘Well you know, if I want fluoride, I’ll get it. I don’t want it in my water.'”
In its announcement, the government said some young children who tend to swallow toothpaste are getting too much fluoride, causing a usually mild and typically only cosmetic tooth discoloration called fluorosis. The Centers for Disease Control still insists millions of people have had fewer cavities because of public water fluoridation and has not backed off whatsoever that fluoridation is a good thing, said William Kohn, oral health director for the CDC.
Water fluoridation originated with discoveries almost a century ago that people who grew up in areas with high amounts of naturally occurring fluoride in the water had fewer cavities. Grand Rapids, Mich., became the first community to fluoridate in 1945, just as World War II was ending and the Cold War was heating up.
A conspiracy theory soon emerged: Fluoridation was a communist plot to make Americans compliant. Director Stanley Kubrick lampooned the idea in his 1964 film “Dr. Strangelove,” with Air Force Gen. Jack D. Ripper’s famous soliloquy about communists, fluoridation and “our precious bodily fluids.”
But some U.S. communities still reject fluoridation.
In Nebraska, a 2008 law required communities of more than 1,000 people without enough natural fluoride in their water to add it unless voters said no. That year, about a third of more than 60 communities voting on the issue rejected fluoridation.
Sandpoint, Idaho, and Hoquiam, Wash., have voted against fluoridation within the past year. Concerns ranged from people being medicated against their will to possible health problems.
Fluoridation rates vary widely among the states, from close to 100 percent of people on community water systems in Maryland, Kentucky, Minnesota and North Dakota to 11 percent in Hawaii and 14 percent in New Jersey. Wyoming, at 37 percent, ranks 44th.
The nationwide rate has climbed gradually over the years to 72 percent.
Some in Sheridan are calling for a citywide vote. That’s what happened in 1949, when fluoridation first was adopted, and again in 1953, after a local attorney led a successful campaign to abandon it.
“I am fearful that some of them (dentists) have been bitten by the socialistic bug,” read a 1953 newspaper ad taken out by the attorney, John F. Raper. “Let’s swat it on Election day!”
Norwash hopes his fellow citizens will do the same before the city’s water plant improvements are completed in 2013.
“There’s too many people that sit on their tailfeathers,” Norwash said. “They just eat whatever is put on their plate.”