When city and county officials in Albuquerque met last week to discuss reinstating water fluoridation, the scene was one familiar to Santa Feans. Dozens of community members showed up to protest what they described as an unnecessary and potentially cancer-causing, IQ-lowering incursion on their liberty, while doctors and dentists pleaded with the board to just look at the science and more importantly, think of the children.
Although the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority decided on Feb. 26 to defer a vote on fluoride until later this spring, it allowed about an hour of public comment, reflecting a controversy that will probably continue at a planned April meeting.
Meanwhile, Santa Fe has quietly reduced the fluoride added to its water to match upcoming federal regulations, years after a flurry of proposals, amendments and meetings in 2012 that resulted in no official change to the city code.
City Councilor Chris Calvert initially proposed ending supplemental fluoridation, but the ensuing backlash from medical experts persuaded him to give up his bid.
Rudy Blea, director of the Office of Oral Health at the state health department, says people who don't have regular access to dental care benefit most from water fluoridation.
“Those who may not need it will never know the difference,” he says, “but if you pull fluoride, you'll see the incidence of tooth decay increase.”
Some opponents of adding fluoride to city drinking water argue tax dollars would be better spent providing improved dental care and education for the poor. Santa Fe spends about $30,000 a year on fluoridation (and it will cost Albuquerque about $100,000), but according to the American Dental Association, every dollar spent on treating tap water saves $38 in dental treatment costs.
Blea said he'd be happy to give the money the city spends on fluoride to an education campaign, but that it would be “just a drop in the bucket” compared to what would be needed to replace the effect of fluoridated tap water.
Albuquerque stopped adding fluoride to the water supply in 2011 after federal health officials proposed lowering the recommended levels of fluoride in drinking water to .7 parts per million, down from the range of .7 to 1.2 ppm that had guided water authorities across the country since 1962.
But three years later, with recommendations from the US Department of Health and Human Services still undergoing a slow process of scientific review and the levels of naturally occurring fluoride in Albuquerque’s wells and water tanks hovering around .4 ppm, water board member and Bernalillo County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins decided to propose adding just enough fluoride to bring the average up to .7 ppm, the lowest level at which dentists say the cavity-fighting effects of fluoride show an impact.
Before the meeting, Stebbins seemed confident in her position. “There’s 60 years worth of data showing .7 is a safe level,” she said. “I have tried to read absolutely everything that has been sent to me, and the factor that keeps coming up in my mind is the concerns that are raised about fluoride. Are they talking about the .7 level, or are they talking about a much higher level? What would give me pause is if I saw a study that showed that .7 causes injury somehow.”
Board members at last week’s meeting did more listening than talking, although after hearing public comment the majority seemed to favor resuming the project. The sole naysayer was Commissioner Art De La Cruz, who told the audience that he'd heard enough to sow a seed of doubt.
Like many things we ingest, the majority of health care experts say a little bit of fluoride helps a lot—but too much can hurt. At higher levels, fluoride is known to cause a staining of the teeth than ranges from mild white spots to a severe discoloration first known as Colorado Brown Stain. Some places in New Mexico have levels of naturally occurring fluoride high enough to cause staining, which is now called fluorosis. At very high levels of exposure, fluoride can move from cavity fighter to contaminant.
Despite being endorsed by every major public health organization, fluoride has always been controversial among certain segments of society. During the McCarthy era of the 1950s, conservatives roared that fluoridation was a communist plot for mind control. Although fluoride doesn't often get much more than a passing mention from traditional media, who seem to consider it a deeply un-sexy issue of settled science, a panoply of paranoia awaits on the internet. And although they may agree on little else, the residents of the political penumbra seem to agree that they don’t trust the government to mess with their water.
“Fluoride was developed by the Nazis to keep the concentration camp prisoners compliant,” said one retired woman before the Albuquerque meeting. She'd heard about the dangers of fluoride on progressive radio.
Furthermore, “too much in the regular media is covered up, and you can’t get the truth,” according to a mechanic sitting a few rows behind her who also said he was very concerned about vaccines, genetically modified organisms and artificial sweeteners.
Dentists can present all the double-blind, peer-reviewed studies they want, but voters have a strong power to sway elected officials on this subject. “You've got Rudy Blea from the state and dentists who swear by it, but at the end of the day it’s who you want to believe,” says Councilor Calvert. “You get a lot of testimony from people who say ‘I looked this up on the internet.’”
“We trust the people who we trust with our health—doctors and dentists,” said Albuquerque City Councilor Rey Garduño, who sits on the water board and said he’s seen the same dentist for 36 years. “My dentist is very adamant that fluoride is healthful, but it has to be regulated. If I had a preponderance of health care workers and dentists who told me, ‘Don't do this,’ I would listen to that. I would trust that more than someone who philosophically or religiously believed something.”
For more information, see:
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's "Community Water Fluoridation FAQ."
The American Dental Association's "Fluoride Facts," a 71-page booklet that addresses pretty much every question you could ask, with full references.