Fluoride and the 'Oops' factor

Posted: Friday, September 21, 2007

I'd like to write about Juneau's favorite topic - the great fluoride debate of 2007 - but please wait until you reach the last paragraph.

Sound off on the important issues at

One of the fine medical services in Juneau is the emergency room at the Bartlett Regional Hospital, where nurses and doctors offer 24-hour care. I recall a few years ago, as I listened to the radio at the hospital, that a baby barely able to breath was coming in. She was treated and saved. She probably would have been lost in an earlier time.

In the 1930s and '40s, Juneau had only about four doctors. And our downtown hospital, St. Ann's, had no emergency receiving facilities.

It also is miraculous how many millions have been treated by new medicines, including antibiotics that prevent life threatening infections.

But occasionally, medical fads occur. They are popular for a time and then rejected.

As a boy, I had three tonsil operations. These weren't simple procedures but the real thing. In the first two, I was knocked out with ether, a wickedly smelly concoction, that caused my brain to swirl in ever decreasing circles until I hit the point of oblivion. Today, I never hear of a tonsil operation, and I doubt I needed one, let alone three.

In the 1960s, if a woman complained of a sore back, some doctors recommended a hysterectomy. In Georgia, sometime before our third child, Allan, was born, my wife got this advice, which we did not follow. This also was largely a fad.

Today many preach cosmetic surgery. At 72, I certainly don't need a tuck under my chin, even though it looks pretty much like a rooster's in the mirror.

A few years ago, I had a heart attack. The doctor in Seattle advised having an angioplasty. This is a procedure where a probe is inserted in your leg and moved up into your heart with a little camera attached, to see if you might need a stent to prop open a blood vessel. Today, only a few years later, some medical studies dispute the effectiveness of this treatment for all patients.

I asked the doctor in Seattle if there was a danger the probe might rupture a blood vessel.

"Well, there is some statistical chance."

I declined his invitation. I was just scared. I didn't want to lie on the surgical table, still partially awake, and hear the doctor say, "Oops."

In all the talk on fluoride, one thought scares me. What if the person administering the teaspoon of poison misjudges the dosage and adds 10 times or 100 times or a 1,000 times the suggested amount? Then we all might be gone or really sick. This is called "human error," or for me the "Oops" factor.

•Lifelong Alaskan Elton Engstrom is a retired fish buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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