The debate over fluoridated water in America long has brought emotional responses from those who don't like the government messing with them, or who don't trust the doctors and dentists who support the practice. It's the sort of mindset that, in its extreme, can make people hysterical. Remember Base Commander Ripper in Stanley Kubrick's classic film "Dr. Strangelove," railing against the communist plot to "sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids" with fluoride? That was good comedy. Then Ripper blew up the world.
Less funny was this week's revelation that the children of Juneau, without the knowledge of their parents, dentists or doctors, have faced greater exposure to the sapping and impurifying effects of tooth decay since last summer. City officials privately withdrew the additive from the water system, saying they suspect fluoride could be leaching copper out of pipes and increasing copper pollution into the Mendenhall River. City officials ask residents to wait until July while they assess whether copper levels are declining. That's a lot to ask on a hunch, and even if fluoride does prove to be the culprit, the city should find other ways of addressing pollution.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention endorses fluoridation as a safe and effective method of preventing tooth decay. A 2001 report issued by that agency quoted research saying an effective delivery method is drinking water because it provides a small dose over a sustained period. Fluoride in water fights the acids that eat into tooth enamel and repairs damaged enamel. The surgeon general has called widespread fluoridated water one of the greatest health advances of the 20th century.
By 2001 some 162 million Americans - about 58 percent - were connected to water systems with added fluoride. Among communities with public water systems, the percentage was higher, at about two-thirds. Juneau residents were among them, though Alaskans in general were less likely to have access to fluoride without visiting a dentist. The state ranked 37th in percentage of people on public systems receiving fluoride: 55.2. Juneau's sudden defection likely pushes that unfortunately low number even lower.
Now that Juneau has surfaced as a fluoride battleground, advocates nationwide will be imploring the city to keep the stuff out. Already e-mails are flying and Juneau's story is posted on the Web sites of groups dedicated to stamping out fluoride. Officials would be wise to listen to reason and side with healthy teeth.
The city's medical professionals rightly clamored for fluoride's return the moment they heard it was gone. They should continue to do so, and the city should turn the spigot back on now.