Forum explores fluoride use
- Published: November 11, 2010
Whether the Village of Yellow Springs should continue to fluoridate its drinking water and at what level will be debated at a forum organized by Village Council from 2 to 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 13, at the John Bryan Center gym.
At the forum a water scientist, a biomedical scientist and a medical ethicist will present their cases to Council members and the community ahead of a potential Village Council resolution to reduce the amount of fluoride the Village adds to the municipal water or cease the practice entirely. The municipal system treats about 450,000 gallons of raw water per day — drawn from wells on Jacoby Road — to serve about 2,000 residential, commercial and industrial users in the village.
“We need to be able to think clearly and to really listen — I’m certainly going to,” said Village Council member Lori Askeland, who helped organize the forum. “I understand the science is complicated and it’s easy to get it wrong if you aren’t versed.”
Two well-credentialed scientists who live outside the village will argue for and against maintaining current fluoridation levels. In support of public fluoridation is YSI, Inc. water scientist Kevin Schlueter, who has a PhD in biochemistry and training in clinical chemistry and toxicology; against is research scientist Kathleen Thiessen, who has a PhD in biomedical science and served on a recent National Research Council committee that advised the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on fluoridation. Villager Mary White, a PhD in medical ethics with a focus on risk assessment, will speak on the role of public policy in health matters.
“I’m very interested in our responses to uncertainty and risk and the rational and irrational reactions to those responses,” White said. “It’s not just sufficient to look at the data, the methodology, quality of the study — context matters more.”
Schlueter has been poring over the scientific literature on fluoride for the last few weeks and has been in contact with the Ohio Department of Health, the American Waterworks Association and the American Medical Association to bring himself up-to-speed on fluoridation, which he never considered might pose a public health problem.
“I had not heard bad things about fluoridation until I started — a lot is not based upon evidence,” he said. “I’m a rational scientist and I make decisions slowly according to different sources and the validity of the sources, and I’m of the opinion that it overall does have a beneficial effect for cavities for all age groups in the amount and application.”
Schlueter also said he believes that the practice is an inexpensive government benefit.
“When the Village does it, you get the fluoride for free, it keeps cavities down and it gets socialized for everyone,” he said. “It’s a proven benefit with very few negatives to it.”
Thiessen, who works with science research consultant SENES Center for Risk Analysis in Oak Ridge, Tenn., first studied fluoride toxicity for the EPA in 1988. From 2003 to 2006 she participated in a 12-member National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council study, “Fluoride in Drinking Water: A Scientific Review of EPA’s Standards.” A review of available research, the study recommended the EPA reduce the maximum allowable level of fluoride in drinking water, from the current 4.0 milligrams per liter, which the committee determined to be unsafe. So far, the EPA has not acted upon the committee’s recommendations.
“What you’re trying to do for any contaminant is keep exposures below the level where health effects occur,” Thiessen said of fluoride, which the EPA regulates as a contaminant. “You want to find a safe level where no health effects occur, and keep exposure at or below that level. Usually there’s a margin of safety to protect vulnerable populations like children.”
The forum comes nearly three years after Environmental Commission member Vickie Hennessy began discussing her concerns with water fluoridation at that group’s meetings. Last year the commission organized the first community debate on the topic and earlier this year recommended that Village Council cease the practice, asserting that fluoride has been linked to cancer, thyroid dysfunction and other diseases, and that research shows that ingesting fluoride does not prevent tooth decay, which is best treated with frequent brushing and topical fluoride treatments.
The fluoride level in the Village’s water supply is 1.0 milligrams per liter. The Village adds enough fluoride to bring the concentration up from the naturally occurring level of 0.4 mg/liter, Askeland said. The Village has fluoridated its water since 1959, for which the Village received an award from the Ohio Department of Public Health in August.
“This forum is intended to address all issues, pro and con, and hopefully really let people see the facts and the reality behind water fluoridation,” Hennessy said.
Panelists were selected by Hennessy and Askeland with participation from Council member Karen Wintrow, Dr. Carl Hyde, Steve Conn and Angela Brintlinger. The Ohio Department of Public Health, the agency which advises local governments on fluoridation, declined an invitation to speak at the forum.
Among the issues to be addressed are the dental benefits and health problems from both topical and systemic fluoridation (fluoridated water taken internally), evaluating fluoride exposure levels in addition to water concentration, potential health effects of fluoride sources, and weighing the risk of fluoridating water with the risk of not fluoridating, panelists said.
In addition to reviewing concerns community members have aired in letters to the Yellow Springs News and in public meetings, White will explore what she said is the central question of the forum:
“In the face of uncertain risk, how does a community respond?”