Today, the amount of fluoride deemed safe and beneficial by U.S. Public Health Services has been reduced and, in some cities, the practice has stopped completely. Among the list of those no longer adding fluoride to the water are Olathe, Montrose, Santa Fe and, most recently, Albuquerque./Photo by Jennaye Derge

Brushed aside

Council chooses to keep adding fluoride to city’s water supply

by Tracy Chamberlin

City Councilor Dean Brookie called it the new “F” word. Fluoride took its place as the contentious issue of the day during the Durango City Council’s meeting Tuesday night.

After a split vote from the Utilities Commission, resulting in no formal recommendations, the decision of whether or not to continue adding fluoride to the city’s water supply fell on the council’s shoulders.

All five members approved keeping the status quo, which means the debate is over – at least, for now.

“It doesn’t mean our decision is a static one,” Durango Mayor Christina Rinderle said at the meeting.

Although the council decided to continue adding fluoride to the city’s water supply, Rinderle said they would keep an eye on the issue as it evolves. Something it’s been doing for the better part of a century.

In the early 1900s, a dentist in Colorado Springs realized communities that had higher levels of naturally occurring fluoride in their drinking water had far fewer cavities than those who did not. So, after much study, communities throughout the United States began adding fluoride to the water supply in the 1950s, including Durango. 

Today, the amount of fluoride deemed safe and beneficial by the U.S. Public Health Services, an arm of the Department of Health and Human Services, has been reduced and, in some cities, the practice has stopped completely. According to the Fluoride Action Network, among the list of those no longer adding fluoride to the drinking water are Olathe, Snowmass, Montrose, Santa Fe and, most recently, Albuquerque.

The debate made its way to Durango last year when the Utilities Commission began hearing arguments both for and against the practice.

In the end, it came down to a split decision and a recommendation that the Council schedule a study session to “hear firsthand the varying viewpoints,” according to city documents.

The council invited two people to join them at the table Tuesday night for discussions: Liane Jollon, executive director of San Juan Basin Health Department, and John Ballew, chair of the Utilities Commission.

Jollon discussed the history of water fluoridation in Colorado and across the nation, adding that 70 years’ worth of scientific data shows the practice to be not just safe, but a benefit to the community – particularly the most vulnerable populations, like seniors and children living below the poverty line. She recommended continuing the practice in Durango.

Ballew also recommended continuing the practice.

The Utilities Commission, however, was split. The official vote ahead of the Council’s meeting was 2-2; and, statements submitted from each of the six commission members were also split at 3-3.

In his prepared statement, Ballew said, “I have found that the weight of science is in favor of water fluoridation.”

A sentiment he reiterated at Tuesday’s meeting. He also said the commission’s split wasn’t about whether or not adding fluoride to the city’s drinking water could prevent cavities. It was about whether or not it was the role of the city to add it in the first place.

“Regardless of the health benefits, is it really within the role of our local government?” asked commission member Colton Andersen in his statement.

He questioned the ethical role of any local government to administer a substance for medical purposes without an individual’s consent. “I would err on the side of not fluoridating our water for that reason,” he added.

Andersen instead suggested using the money spent on fluoridation for oral health education in schools and throughout the area.

“Better oral health would most definitely lead to a healthier community,” he wrote. “In my opinion, better education might be more work, but it would … lead to better long term outcomes by improving life-long oral hygiene rather than a passive contemporary benefit.”

Commission member Kara Hellige wondered if the city’s mission to provide safe, clean drinking water also committed them to provide public health benefits through that same water.

“If the City determines that it is in their best interest to provide health benefits, then where does the City stop with these services?” she asked in her statement.

She said that since the city’s mission does not extend to health care, she would recommend stopping the practice.

One commission member, Brian Devine, addressed the question of whether or not the commission had the right to add fluoride despite the wishes of some to end the practice.

In his statement, he used the analogy of ceasing to add chlorine and other sanitizing chemicals that can be harmful in high concentrations because some citizens might believe the bacteria killed by those agents was beneficial.

“Would this commission be on solid ground to cease water treatment for bacteria to accommodate this person?” he asked.

The amount added to the city’s water supply is considered by many to be a low dose. The level found naturally in Durango’s water is 0.2 milligrams per liter. To reach the Public Health Service’s recommended level of 0.7 milligrams per liter, city employees add another 0.5 milligrams of sodium fluoride.

Because fluoride does occur naturally, the reason its benefits were discovered in the first place, it’s difficult for health officials to track levels outside the city’s treatment process, like private wells in La Plata County.

Those are the places where high levels could go undetected until the adverse effects are noticed. One proven adverse effect of high doses of fluoride is dental fluorosis, a cosmetic condition which discolors the teeth in a lace-like pattern.

“The benefit has to be worth the side-effects,” Commission member Paul O’Neil wrote in his statement.

While he did not believe a low dose of fluoride caused any serious side effects, he said, “I don’t think the benefits are worth the risk to everyone.”

Bob Lieb, a member of the Anti-Fluoride Coalition who was able to present his thoughts to the Utilities Commission, also wondered if it was worth the risk.

“It’s a big gamble,” he said in an interview.

Recent studies on the issue of water fluoridation examined connections between adverse health effects and high doses of fluoride. Some of the possible afflictions looked at include lower bone density, attention deficit disorder (ADD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), lower IQ and an increase in thyroid deficiencies.

Although the connections between these afflictions and too much fluoride has not been made, Lieb said the risk is simply not worth the reward.

“The list is too onerous,” he added. “Does a decision-maker really want to make that gamble?”