Health aspects of fluoridated water debated at county meeting

The fluoride fight spilled over into the Sedgwick County Commission chambers Wednesday with about 20 people debating the benefits and risks of putting the cavity-fighting chemical in Wichita’s city drinking water.

The commission has no authority over the decision whether to fluoridate the water, which will be decided by voters in a ballot initiative Nov. 6.

But the county injected itself into the debate when the Health Department put a fact sheet on the county website that fluoride opponents interpreted as being pro-fluoridation.

Fluoride opponent Julie Simpson said she came to the meeting to protest “illegal use of my tax dollars to promote a campaign … taxpayer dollars were improperly used and illegally spent.”

Objections over the fact sheet, which has been removed from the site, prompted commissioners to hold what was essentially an open-mike day, allow both sides to air their views in the meeting televised on local public television.

Proponents of fluoride, including Bill Maas, the former director of the Division of Dental Health at the US Centers for Disease Control, renewed their claim that fluoride at the levels to be used in tap water is safe and effective and more than pays for itself by preventing cavities and the treatment necessary to fix them.

Citing insurance data, Maas said Wichita spends about $25million a year on dental treatments to repair new cavities.

“It’s important that community water fluoridation results in approximately 25 percent reduction in tooth decay,” said Maas, who now works for the Pew Charitable Trust. “It’s safe. I’m not going to give you any percentages because it is absolutely safe. It is cost effective.”

Pressed by commissioners Richard Ranzau and Jim Skelton, he acknowledged that municipal fluoridation can result in a condition called mild fluorosis, in essence white spots caused by crystalline changes in tooth enamel.

He said his own children may have such spots — probably from swallowing fluoride toothpaste as children — but that the spots are harmless and his kids have “beautiful” teeth.

“We (public health officials) accept a tradeoff between very mild fluorosis and (preventing) tooth decay,” he said.

Ranzau said he thinks accepting that tradeoff should be an individual, not a community decision.

And Skelton said he was disturbed that Maas would characterize spots on his daughter’s teeth as beautiful.

“If I found on my daughter’s teeth a substance that is abnormal, caused by chemicals introduced in our water supply … I’d be beyond irritated,” Skelton said. “I would wonder what internal effects would be going on, what kind of white spots is she going to have on her bones, etc. That’s a symptom of something larger, sir.”

Maas replied that there has been more than 30 years of study on fluoridated water by some of the nation’s top researchers, almost all of whom live in communities with fluoridated water.

“We’ve been continuing to study whether there’s any … other health effects from fluoride and none have been detected,” he said.

Skelton responded that scientific research changes conclusions all the time.

“If you’re telling me … you’re able to identify chemicals that are not natural to the body, I think you’ve made my point for me, sir,” Skelton said.

Most of the speakers from the general public were against fluoridation. Several claimed to have health conditions that would be worsened if the fluoride content in the water were increased.

Zella Newberry said she has arthritis, threatening her ability to work as massage therapist.

“The doctors told me I was allergic to something, but that something they didn’t know,” she said. “It turns out it was fluoride and I was getting it in Dr. Pepper, fruits and vegetables with insecticide, toothpaste and all those things”

By dropping the Dr. Pepper and switching to organic vegetables, “I cleared about 75 percent. I can now continue to work, I do have to wear gloves,” she said.

But Leah Barnhart said she had suffered from the lack of fluoride in the water.

She said that although she had the best dental care available and took “impeccable” care of her teeth, she only has five teeth out of 32 without a cap or filling. She said she expects the problem to get worse and more expensive as she ages.

“Looking back, I would have been very happy to pay the nine cents a month or whatever it costs for fluoridated water because it would have reduced the number of cavities in my mouth.”