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Critics pan city staff report on fluoride in Austin’s water supply

Friday, December 4, 2009 by Bill McCann

A city staff report supporting continued use of fluoride in Austin’s tap water to prevent tooth decay got some biting criticism from anti-fluoride activists and from members of the Environmental Board on Wednesday.


Fluoride critics and some board members complained that the report failed to address a number of key questions, including the dangers of hydrofluosilicic acid (the chemical source of the fluoride), the risks to infants from ingesting fluoride, the synergistic effects of fluoride and other chemicals on the human body, and fluoride’s possible link to bone cancer.


“The city review does not deserve a passing grade,” said Neil Carman, longtime environmental activist with the Sierra Club and a leader of the anti-fluoride movement in Austin. Fluoride opponents, who say they are concerned about fluoride’s potential health effects, have been showing up at City Council meetings regularly over the past year to voice their concerns.


The report also was challenged by Environmental Board Chair Mary Gay Maxwell and Board Member Phil Moncada, who said it left many unanswered questions. They were particularly miffed because the board voted unanimously in August to ask the City Council for an independent, science-based study of the issue after hearing from fluoride opponents, including a local dentist who said fluoride in drinking water does not reduce tooth decay.


Instead, Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza commissioned a city team, comprised of members of the Austin Water Utility, Watershed Protection Department, Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department and the Law Department, to review the issue and prepare a report. In a memo to the City Council on Nov. 13, Garza, said the report was developed in response to concerns raised during citizen communications at Council meetings. There was no mention of the Environmental Board request.


As a result, some board members felt that the board was being ignored and undercut. Maxwell said the board was not informed that staff was preparing the report.


“This puts the board in a difficult position,” Maxwell said. “It is very hard to be chairman of the board that is put in this position.”


Moncada made a motion requesting that the numerous questions raised by Carman be addressed as a supplement to the existing report. The motion also included a second request by the board for an independent scientific study. The motion passed 4-3, with board members Bob Anderson, Mary Ann Neely and Jon Beall voting against it. Board members made it clear that they are not at this point opposing fluoride in the water – but are merely seeking additional information that includes input from outside experts.


Beall expressed skepticism of some of the claims by fluoride opponents, including claims that fluoride may cause bone cancer. Neely said she felt that the subject should be addressed at the federal level. “This is above our pay grade,” Neely said.


Austin has been fluoridating its drinking water since 1973 at the direction of the City Council after the Council ordered a public referendum, which supported fluoridation by a 58 to 42 percent vote. The current Council could change that decision with a simple majority of four votes and anti-fluoride activists have been making a strong push in that direction.


In his cover memo submitting the water fluoridation report to the Council, Garza stated that the report’s findings “show that the present level of fluoride in Austin’s drinking water has no harmful impact on human health or adverse effect on aquatic life and provides a public benefit in preventing dental decay.” Garza also emphasized that the state and federal governments as well as many medical organizations continue to endorse fluoridation


Jane Burazer, assistant director for treatment at the Austin Water Utility, started off the Wednesday discussion by summarizing the city staff report. About 69 percent of the U.S. population received fluoridated water in 2006, up from 62 percent in 1992, she said. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to promote fluoridation and lists it as one of the 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century, she said.


The Austin Water Utility follows best practices set for fluoridating water, Burazer said. The amount of fluoride in Austin’s water averages 0.75 parts per million, compared to the CDC’s recommended level of 0.7 to 1.2 parts per million, she said. The Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum contaminant level to ensure no health effects is 4 parts per million, she added.


Fluoride will cost the utility about $386,000 for 2009, or about 50 cents per person per year, Burazer said. The estimated dental health cost savings from fluoridation is $18.62 per person per year in large communities, she added.


Backing up Burazer was Dr. Philip Huang, Health and Human Services Department medical director, who said “fluoride is recognized as safe and effective,” and Chris Herrington, Watershed Protection Department engineer, who said no adverse impacts have been detected in the environment from the use of fluoride in the drinking water.


About a dozen fluoride opponents signed up to speak. Leading off was Bill Kiel, who was a City Council member in Alamo Heights when that San Antonio suburb stopped fluoridating the water about a year and a half ago. “I was surprised when I looked into it (fluoridation), how inconsistent and how many contradictions there were,” he said.


Kiel said the city staff report is missing important relevant information, including details of a recent National Research Council report  that raised questions about existing federal standards for fluoride. After the report was issued, both the CDC and American Dental Association issued cautions against using fluoridated water for baby formula, he said.


“I am disappointed in  the narrow focus of the (city staff) report,” Kiel said. “It could have been given two years ago, but you need to look at what has happened since then.”


Carman also criticized what he called “serious omissions” in the report. Many of these centered on hydrofluosilicic acid, which Carman called a “toxic cocktail” that is classified as a hazardous waste. The acid, a by-product of the production of fertilizer, is the source of the fluoride used to treat the city’s drinking water.


“Why would anyone want to put in their water supply an industrial-grade toxic substance?” Carman asked.


Another speaker, John Bush, praised the board for taking up the fluoride issue and for taking time to listen to opponents. He also criticized city staff for trying to “preempt” an independent review by developing the staff report.


“Our voice continues to fall on deaf ears and the City Council continues to ignore us,” Bush told the board. “But you are beginning to see the reality of what is going on here and I urge you to help us get an independent review.”

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