Water fluoridation debate rages on after 70 years

2013-05-10T00:00:00Z Water fluoridation debate rages on after 70 yearsPhil Wieland phil.wieland@nwi.com, (219) 548-4352 nwitimes.com

Fluoride in the water, introduced in the 1940s, continues to be a controversial topic. No one is calling it a Communist plot anymore, but the two sides still can be heated about it.

On the one side is the Centers for Disease Control, backed by the American Dental Association, American Medical Association, the World Health Organization and others, calling fluoridation one of the top public health innovations in history and linking it to the dramatic improvement in dental health, especially among children.

Opponents liken it to administering a prescription drug to 180 million people, including infants and small children, without concern for personal reactions or dosage amounts. They say it is a highly toxic pollutant linked to several health problems. It's illegal to dump into the water or release into the air, and 99 percent of it ends up on people's lawns or toilets, where it is a pollutant.

The two sides are squaring off in Portland, Ore., May 21, where the issue has come up for the fourth time. Portland is one of four major cities in the country that does not fluoridate. Charter initiatives to add fluoride failed in 1956 and 1962. It passed in 1978 but was repealed in 1980.

In September 2012 the Portland City Council unanimously approved an ordinance directing the Portland Water Bureau to add fluoride. Opponents gathered more than 40,000 signatures to put it on the ballot, where it will be voted on in less than two weeks.

In the meantime, a second petition drive is underway to place an issue on the ballot making the fluoride ban permanent. That could be voted on in 2014. Tim Hall, public information manager for the water bureau, said the group that pushed approval of fluoridation cited the high cavity rate, especially among low income children.

Hall said the schools hand out fluoride tablets to the children, but some don't take the tablets and others have gotten sick. The issue has dominated the city for the past couple of months, but Hall said the water bureau has not taken a stance, merely waiting for the referendum results.

New Israeli Health Minister Yael German recently announced that, beginning next year, local municipalities of 5,000 or more people will no longer be required to fluoridate their water. She did that as part of new regulations for stricter supervision of water supplies, according to a story in The Jerusalem Post.

A National Center for Health Statistics study in 2010 showed 41 percent of adolescents between the ages of 12 and 15 had some degree of fluorosis from over-exposure to fluoride. Fluorosis is a discoloration and, in severe cases, pitting of the teeth. Fluorosis was found in about a third of those ages 6 to 11. It drops to 8.7 percent by ages 40 to 49 with less than 1 percent designated as serious.

Fluoridation also has been supported since 1976 by the American Water Works Association, which sponsors this week's annual observance of National Drinking Water Week to raise awareness of the need to preserve and conserve our fresh water supply. The national standard for adding fluoride is about one drop for 55 gallons of water.

Valparaiso has been fluoridating since 1952 and has rejected past requests to halt the practice. Utility Director Steve Poulos said it was started at the request of the Indiana State Board of Health, and Valparaiso was one of the first in the state to do so.

"We do recognize there may be some disagreement on this issue, but our position is we are acting on the advice of the most respected and reputable health agencies," Poulos said. "I think we are being careful in how we do it, and we are always trying to add it at the levels based on the recommendations of those agencies."

He said the state board of health is expecting notification soon from federal authorities on whether the levels should be lowered below the current one part per million.

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