My Turn : Fluoridate our water? No thanks.

No amount of debate, not even a city election, will make fluoridated water a good idea

Posted: Friday, June 29, 2007

Recently, a group of Juneau citizens began circulating a petition to put the issue of fluoridating our drinking water on the fall ballot.

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"Wait a minute," you might ask, "Didn't we just resolve a contentious three-year debate about fluoride? Didn't the Juneau Assembly decide 6-3 last November to take it out of our water?"

Yes, we did.

But like a bad penny, fluoridation keeps coming back, especially when there are national organizations such as the American Dental Association willing to spend money to keep it alive. The ADA is paying people a dollar a signature to drum up support for a ballot measure to reintroduce fluoride to our drinking water.

While the motives of petition supporters are no doubt honorable, that still doesn't make fluoridation a good idea. Contrary to common belief, fluoride is not a nutrient required for human health, anymore than arsenic is. The recommended dietary allowance for fluoride is zero. The sodium fluoride formerly added to our drinking water is classified as an industrial grade hazardous waste.

The evidence on which fluoridation was originally introduced back in the 1940s would be considered laughable today. After more than half a century of fluoridation, scientific support for its benefit in preventing tooth decay is equivocal at best. The largest U.S. study on fluoridation, conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service, found the decay rate of permanent teeth was virtually the same in fluoridated and nonfluoridated areas.

The final nail in the coffin of fluoridated drinking water should have been the publication last year of the National Academy of Sciences report on fluoride. That authoritative report contains more red flags than a Soviet May Day parade. It cited research showing that even modest concentrations of fluoride inhibit enzyme systems, impair kidney and thyroid function, impact brain development and IQ, and contribute to bone pathology.

The report raised serious questions about the effect of fluoride exposure on vulnerable segments of the population, including pregnant women, infants and small children. These concerns were highlighted in a recent Environmental Working Group analysis that found infants and young children are at a three to four times higher risk of overexposure to fluoride than adults because of their smaller size. Infants consuming formula made from fluoridated tap water were judged to be at greatest risk.

The acolytes of fluoridation, like all true believers, seemed unfazed by this avalanche of bad news. Shortly afterwards, the ADA issued an advisory to its members addressing concerns about fluoride exposure in infants. The association's solution? Advise parents to use bottled water when making infant formula.

Of course, according to the ADA, the reason we need to fluoridate in the first place is because many parents don't have the wherewithal to practice good nutrition and dental hygiene with their children. Yet ADA believes these same parents will go out and buy bottled water to protect their infants from fluoride's ill effects. Now that's a leap of faith.

Here's a better idea: Let's not dump industrial grade hazardous waste into the water in the first place. That way, we won't have to worry about protecting folks from it. There are plenty of ways those who want fluoride can get it without contaminating everyone else's drinking water. Between toothpastes, mouthwashes and the background fluoride already present in food, most people are already getting more than enough.

Water fluoridation is a half-baked idea which most of the civilized world rejected long ago. More debate and a municipal election will not make it a better idea. It will only divert our attention from addressing the real causes of tooth decay, which are poor nutrition and lack of dental hygiene, not lack of fluoride.

• David Ottoson owns Rainbow Foods and is a Juneau resident.

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