Drilling down on the fluoride debate
If Rifle decides to add fluoride to its water, it would join Glenwood Springs, Aspen and Snowmass Village among municipalities in Garfield and Pitkin counties.
Other towns in the region do not add fluoride to their water, and dentists say they can see the difference.
Rifle is building a new water treatment plant and, at the urging of local health officials, is studying whether to buy equipment to add fluoride. Rifle decided against fluoridation in 2005, joining something of a national wave of U.S. municipalities turning against the practice.
While nearly three-quarters of the U.S. population served by municipal systems drinks water treated with fluoride, more than 200 small cities and towns around the country since 2008 have opted not to fluoridate their water.
“You could compare this to some of the arguments people have for not vaccinating their children,” said Kelly Keeffe, regional oral health consultant for the Aspen to Parachute Dental Health Alliance.
“I don’t see the argument against” fluoridation, she said. “I’ve studied it, and I’ve seen children right here; I see the difference in decay, and it’s noticeable.”
To most dentists and other health professionals such as Keeffe, the anti-fluoridation movement is a baffling rejection of a practice begun in the United States in the 1940s to fight tooth decay.
In a way, it’s a renewal of a debate in the 1950s and ‘60s as cities first introduced fluoride. Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1944 became the first city to add the compound to its water, and recorded a 60 percent drop in childhood dental caries, or tooth decay.
But the idea of introducing a chemical into drinking water was regarded with suspicion, which was lampooned in the 1964 political comedy “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”
“Fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous communist plot we have ever had to face,” the character Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper says in the movie.
“A foreign substance is introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual, certainly without any choice. That’s the way a hard-core commie works,” Ripper explains.
Opposition today is based, in part, on the idea that fluoridation is mass medication of the population without consent — or need.
Websites such as flouridealert.org argue that caries rates are dropping even in locations without fluoridation, and topical application via toothpastes is both voluntary and more effective.
Without question, dental health awareness, particularly among lower-income families, has improved in the past 60 years.
Still, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls fluoridation of water one of the most effective public health measures ever and recommends municipalities ensuring optimum levels in their water.
Fluoride is a mineral that occurs naturally, at different levels, in most water supplies. The effect of fluoride on teeth grew from observations of a Colorado Springs dentist more than 100 years ago, who was puzzled by stains on residents’ teeth caused by fluorosis, an excess of the chemical. As the cause of the stains was sussed out over time, the correlation to low tooth decay also became clear.
In Garfield County, only Glenwood Springs currently fluoridates its water.
City voters approved the practice in 1986, according to Public Works Director Robin Millyard and water department assistant supervisor Jerry Wade.
A couple of local dentists brought the issue to the attention of the city and made the case to voters that it was good for dental health, especially for children. While the practice has been questioned from time to time by individuals appearing before City Council or writing to city officials, it’s never been formally revisited.
The city adds 1.0 parts per million (ppm) fluoride to its water supply, per Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment standards as an “optimum level,” according to Wade and Millyard.
The federal EPA has suggested a new standard of 0.7 ppm, which the state is apparently considering. The city goes by whatever the state recommends.
According to Millyard, there is also a fair amount of naturally occurring fluoride in the city’s water, levels of which tend to fluctuate.
In Pitkin County, Aspen and Snowmass Village fluoridate water supplies, with Aspen settling in 2012 on the 0.7 ppm level.
According to the CDC, 515 water systems in Colorado in 2012 were classified as nonfluoridated, while 196 are listed as fluoridated through natural means. Fifty systems, such as those in Glenwood, Aspen and Snowmass Village, have natural fluoride in their water and adjust the levels with additives to meet a certain standard.
Dr. Colby Quintenz, a pediatrician at Grand River Health in Rifle, recently urged Rifle council members to reconsider the ‘05 decision against fluoridation.
“I’ve been a practicing physician for nine years in Glenwood Springs and moved to Rifle last summer,” Quintenz said. “I’ve noticed how much worse people’s teeth were than in Glenwood Springs.”
The CDC has estimated that in a typical city, water fluoridation costs about $4.92 per person over a 15-year period, but prevents more than $300 worth of treatment costs for dental caries over that time.
Post Independent reporters John Stroud and Will Grandbois contributed to this report.
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