A fight over fluoride is breaking out before a Chattanooga-area water board whose members Tuesday night delay making a vote so they can study the pros and cons of the approved industrial waste their organization has injected into the water supply for decades.
The dispute pits a narrowly focused group of doctors against an unhappy public whose members say they are unwitting victims of a neurologically damaging acid compound.
By David Tulis
At an often raucous North West Utility District meeting in Soddy-Daisy dentists and their faithful retainers make themselves appear selfless and civic minded in their support for fluoride. They warn if the board abolishes the chemical, cavities will soar and their business will be newly enriched. The chemical is so successful in cavity prevention it hurts their trade, they aver. Fluoride is a public benefit.
Critics at the gathering are outnumbered, but express a higher level of indignation than the doctors who calmly claim unshakeable scientific support.
David Collett, general manager, makes a presentation that is largely factual and creates a sense of favor for abolition. To avoid aggravating commissioners and putting the district in a bad light, he makes no direct health arguments against fluoride.
So he focuses on corrosion caused by hydrofluorosilicic acid, poured in liquid form into the drinking water. Fluoride costs the governmental entity about F$20,000 a year, with about F$12,000 of that devoted to replacing rotted fixtures and corroded pipes.
People are getting fluoride by means other than water faucets — better dental care, mouthwash, foods, he says, so adding the chemical is redundant. The EPA and CDC in 2015 ordained that a reduction of fluoride from taps and faucets to reduce potential health damage.
A new plant is being built for F$9 million, Mr. Collett reports. He would like to be able to build it without the danger of fluoride.
Men who run the district’s two plant tell about the hazards of fluoride as a toxic poison. It pits the concrete floor where it is stored. It eats out metal doors. Regularly breathing acid fumes keep workers in ill health, Darrell Burchard and Steve Roark say.
Fluoride is found part of God’s creation. “Fluoride occurs naturally in the runoff and in the surface water of Soddy lake,” Mr. Collett says. Even if the district stops “feeding acid into plant,” he says, water fluoride content will remain at 0.3 parts per million as naturally occurring. Chemical injections are 0.7 ppm, down from 0.9 ppm after the U.S. directives.
Mr. Collett indicates the proposal to remove the chemical has virtually no opposition among the utility’s 7,500 customers. He got 15 phone calls or letters on the matter, “less than 1 percent of the customer base.” Most contacts were from dental professionals.
Many water districts shun chemical
In an April 8 letter to customers Mr. Collett suggests the tide is turning against the cavity protector. “An increase in the awareness of potential issues that could affect our health has led some water companies putting fluoride into their water and some countries have since banned this practice.”
He goes into detail. In Tennessee, of 458 water providers, 184 do not fluoridate. About 40 percent. Some cite medical reasons for clearing the water, some say no as “a business decision.” The board is not taking sides on the health objections to fluoride, because its members are not medical experts, he declares. Fluoride is not required to improve the quality of water, but the utility does have chlorine. Fluoride is purely voluntary.
Why the proposed cleansing of the system? As Mr. Collett lists it: “The costs, the wear and tear on our existing plant and the potential costs it would have on our new water treatment plant and the exposure to our plant operators and what they have to deal with in coming into contact with it.”
A dentist’s lurid endorsement
Dr. Robert Schenck of the Chattanooga Area Dental Society endorses fluoride — but luridly. “It changes the way teeth are formed,” he says. “If you have ingested fluoride as a young child while your teeth are literally forming, it changes the tissue that they’re made of. And it changes the tissue to one that is less susceptible to acid, and therefore to cavities.”
The dental lobby is highly favored by U.S. water utilities because the cavity is the only medical problem for which a cure is offered. Listening approvingly the front row are Dr. Nick Bowman and Dr. Hugh Vice. Others nearby are Dr. Robert Shearer, hygienists and dental staffers.
“There is a public health benefit to the customer of the water company. We feel it is cost effective to do so,” says Dr. Schenck in an interview later. “We feel the safety record is there during the 70 years the program has been in effect in the U.S.” Though there is a cost associated with buying fluoride, there are no negatives. “The overwhelming body of evidence suggests [fluoride] is safe — it’s a naturally occurring ion.”
Among the naysayers are Erik Smith and his wife, Chiesa, standing next to daughter Jaylin, 7.
She interrupts one of the doctors: “I feel like it’s overfluoridation. There have been too many things that have shown —”
“What about the freedom to choose whether I want to take a drug or not,” Mr. Smith bursts in.
“It is a drug,” his wife declares.
“I want the poison to be taken out of the water,” says Mr. Smith, 36, father of two girls and an electrician for a chlorine manufacturer in Charleston, Tenn., in a phone interview. “There’s no reason for it to be in there. The amounts of fluoride they put in there they say it’s good for everyone. But just like every drug, the same dosage for a child is less than the dosage for an adult. And so how can they put one amount of fluoride in the water and say it’s good for everybody?”
“Why is the government medicating us?” bellows a woman in the doorway, a sheaf of printouts in her hand. She insists on being given the name of the industrial waste product that is fluoride source; Mr. Collett says he’ll get back with her. (Fluoride is a waste product from the aluminum industry.)
One woman who speaks is a dentist. “Fluoridated water is the right thing,” she says. “The cost of fluoridating over my lifetime is less than the cost of one filling.”
With a gavel sounding to bring order, a confusion of voices fills the room.
In a flank attack, Dr. Michael Johnson, with an office in Hixson, de-emphasizes the medical and scientific conflict over the chemical. “You can increase dental care by over $100 per child. That’s been proven. So, if we’re talking about a money issue,which it looks like we are, this is a financial issue — it has nothing to do with science, it has nothing to do with fluorosis, it has nothing to do with anything. All your commissioners’ concerns are over money, OK? We’re talking F$3 a year per customer.”
‘Tooth doctors’ scorned
This writer makes a brief statement: “I think the tooth doctors’ bark is worse than their bite. The bite is in long-term neurodegenerative diseases of the American population. We have the autism spectrum. We have many suggestions about the myriad cause of neurological disorders, Alzheimer’s, other conditions such as Parkinson’s. An article in the Lancet that came out a couple of years ago *** has a great quote in it, and it says these chemicals — and there are many of them that haven’t even been researched — they are a ‘global silent pandemic of neurodevelopmental toxicity.’”
Low levels of exposure to these industrial chemicals are especially pernicious among newborns and very small people, the Lancet says. Why are dentists concerned only about teeth, and not the rest of the bodies of people forced to consume fluoride? he demands. Isn’t the dental trade thinking a bit too narrowly?
The listener of his station, AM 1240 Hot News Talk Radio, would favor a no vote on “this toxic material,” he roars amid a rising clamor in the room, and a yes vote to stop using it.
From the Lancet:
Strong evidence exists that industrial chemicals widely disseminated in the environment are important contributors to what we have called the global, silent pandemic of neurodevelopmental toxicity. The developing human brain is uniquely vulnerable to toxic chemical exposures, and major windows of developmental vulnerability occur in utero and during infancy and early childhood. During these sensitive life stages, chemicals can cause permanent brain injury at low levels of exposure that would have little or no adverse effect in an adult.
The headline is “Neurobehavioural effects of developmental toxicity.”
The board’s next gathering is July 19, at which time its members will vote. Phyllis Marr, president of the group (tel. 847-3766). Commissioners are Carlos Wilson, Jim Farmer, Jeff Templeton, Jack Cain, Bill McGriff and Hugh Coulter.
Sources: Philippe Grandjean, Philip J Landrigan, “Neurobehavioural effects of developmental toxicity,” Lancet, Feb. 15, 2014