City to put fluoride back into the water

City Manager wants issue debated publicly

Posted: Thursday, March 18, 2004

Juneau officials have decided to put fluoride back in public drinking water for now, but City Manager Rod Swope is calling for a public forum on the issue.

The city announced Wednesday it would resume fluoridation March 30 after receiving public pressure, Swope said. He acknowledged the city should have informed the public that it turned off the fluoride on June 26, 2003.

Dentists and medical professionals this week demanded fluoride's return after the discontinuation was announced.

A majority of Americans get fluoridated water to protect against tooth decay. Swope and others in the community question the benefits. They say those who want fluoride can buy supplements.

"It bothers me that it's a chemical byproduct that we're ingesting without being given a choice," said Juneau resident Judy Smathers.

The city Department of Public Works used Smathers' Juneau home as a test site for years in which she would send in water samples about every six months. At one point, the city sent a letter to Smathers saying it was experiencing higher, albeit safe, levels of copper in the water, she said.

The copper could be a "mild stomach irritant," the letter said. Smathers' daughter was suffering from severe stomach aches, she said. When she switched her daughter to bottled or filtered water, the aches stopped, she said. Smathers has copper piping in her house.

DPW never said fluoride could be a factor in the increased copper levels at that time, she said. The city stopped adding fluoride recently because it was a suspected culprit in increased copper levels in treated effluent at the Mendenhall Wastewater Treatment plant.

The public is uneducated about the downsides to fluoride, say residents Larry Buzzell and Elise Pringle, who have studied the issue for years. Pringle claims fluoride over time can cause poisoning starting with joint and muscle pains and stiffness, escalating to symptoms of arthritis and osteoporosis.

"The truth has to be brought out," Buzzell said. "The truth will be obvious that we don't want it in our water system."

Dentists, state and federal health officials, however, say fluoridated water is a safe and effective way of promoting oral health. When the discontinuation was announced, Juneau Dental Society President Kristen Schultz said doctors and dentists would recommend families buy daily fluoride supplements and she would ask the Juneau Assembly to resume fluoridation.

Swope is prepared to suggest that either the League of Women Voters or the Assembly host a forum on the issue. Based on public opinion, the Assembly can decide whether to authorize a ballot initiative, change the ordinance that allows fluoride in the water or do nothing.

The 1971 ordinance's liability clause makes Swope and others question the safety of fluoride. It says that the city "in no way assumes any liability for or on account of any damage or injury incurred by any user of water so treated."

Water Utility Supervisor Grant Ritter said the state Department of Environmental Conservation regulations require fluoride be in the range of 0.7 and 1.2 parts per million. The city will be bringing the fluoride back on line in a slow and progressive manner, meaning it will take about a week to stabilize fluoride at those levels, Ritter said. The city must monitor fluoride daily and file reports of fluoride levels to the state DEC.

• Tara Sidor can be reached at

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