The Juneau Assembly will appoint a task force to study the effects of water fluoridation as the community debate intensifies over whether to fluoridate the city's drinking water.
The Assembly wants to study the scientific record of fluoride since it was added to Juneau's water supply more than 30 years ago.
"It's time for a thoughtful, scientific look at the issue," Assembly member Jim Powell said. "It shouldn't be done out of emotion."
The argument has become heated in the last few weeks, with the medical community calling for fluoride to be added back into the water and opponents lobbying to keep it out. Some residents threatened legal action against the city's Public Works Department if it put fluoride back in the water, Director Joe Buck said.
Public Works will put fluoride back in the water Tuesday. The city stopped adding fluoride in June to test high copper levels in effluent at the Mendenhall Wastewater Treatment Plant.
Fluoride opponents, some of whom met with City Manager Rod Swope on Friday, want a public debate before putting fluoride back in the water. Swope said he felt compelled to restore fluoride to the drinking water because it was removed without public notification.
"I think it's our responsibility, and we're going to have that debate after the fact," he said.
The task force, to be composed of medical professionals and others, will create a public education process about the effects of fluoridating municipal water, he said.
"We're hearing competing stories on the issue and the Assembly doesn't have the expertise so we need to convene the experts," said Assembly member Marc Wheeler, who moved last week to create a task force.
Most medical experts agree that fluoride is beneficial in preventing tooth decay when applied to teeth. Some disagree over whether it should be added to public drinking water.
Water fluoridation reduces dental decay in children, adults and the elderly, according to Brad Whistler, dental officer for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.
Early studies of water fluoridation found reductions in dental decay as much as 60 percent in baby teeth and 35 percent in permanent teeth. More-recent studies found lower decay reductions from water fluoridation because there is greater use of fluoridated toothpaste and topically applied gels.
Countries that fluoridate drinking water have the same rate of cavity reductions as nations that do not fluoridate, said Dr. Patrick Neary of Juneau. Neary is a state-licensed naturopathic doctor who uses natural medicines and physical education to heal patients.
Australia, which fluoridates, reached a similar low level of decayed, missing or filled teeth as did the Netherlands, which does not fluoridate, according to a 2000-01 graph by the World Health Organization.
Fluoride itself in drinking water is not going to kill anyone, but chronic exposure can lead to ailments, Neary said. Fluoride affects the production of collagen, which is connective tissue, and causes ligament and joint problems and contributes to osteoporosis and hip fractures, he said.
Dentists endorse fluoride because of their "professional training" and a longtime "biased" endorsement by the American Dental Association, Neary said. Meanwhile, newer toxicology studies have emerged that oppose fluoridating water, he said.
"Topical fluoride in toothpaste is a healthy thing, but we don't need to drink it," Neary said.
Juneau Dental Society President Kristen Schultz said water fluoridation is key to reaching all socioeconomic classes, some of whom may not seek dental treatment or have dental insurance.
"It's been shown as one of the most cost-effective public health preventive measures, as far as decay, as there is," Schultz said.
Some Juneau doctors and dentists have been prescribing supplements since learning the city stopped adding fluoride to the water. Opponents have questioned the safety of putting a prescription drug in public drinking water.
Schultz contends that fluoride is a regulated substance administered in specific dosages.
"A lot of substances are safe in the correct dosages," she said.
Opponents assert the public can take supplements or simply get enough fluoride through some foods and naturally occurring fluoride in water. But naturally occurring fluoride levels are not high enough to fight tooth decay, Schultz said.
The city plans to bring fluoride back online in a slow and progressive manner at recommended levels that impact tooth decay of 0.7 to 1.2 parts per million. Those levels will take about a week to stabilize. The fluoride program costs the city $75,000 a year.
Buck declined comment on the creation of a task force, but said fluoride is a hazardous, poisonous substance to handle.
"Not dosing our water with fluoride wouldn't break our hearts because our people (employees) would be safer," he said.
The 1971 city ordinance on fluoride was repealed six months after enacted. At some point, the city began adding fluoride back into public drinking water. Swope said he doesn't know why the ordinance was repealed and why fluoridation was resumed.
The Assembly Human Resources Committee may appoint task force members by April 12, Powell said. The task force recommendations would go through the committee process and to the full Assembly for action, he said.
Tara Sidor can be reached at email@example.com.