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Health committee hears opening arguments in water fluoridation battle

Wednesday, March 23, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

Austin’s fight over fluoride has officially begun.


Yesterday, City Council’s Public Health and Human Services Committee heard a presentation from city staff on public health issues related to the chemical and its use in Austin’s drinking water supply. The briefing was followed by impassioned, at times heated, pleas from speakers convinced that health dangers are far more serious than authorities want to admit.


Austin began fluoridating its drinking water in February 1973 to help improve dental health, using dosage levels based on Center for Disease Control recommendations for optimal fluoride levels. That current optimal level is 0.7 mg per liter. According to Austin Water Utility Assistant Director Jane Burazer, Austin’s raw water has a naturally occurring fluoride level of about 0.2 mg per liter, so the city adds about 0.5 mg per liter of a chemical called Fluorosilicic Acid to achieve the optimal fluoride level.


On one side of the fluoridation debate are those who see the process as the key to improving and maintaining dental health. During yesterday’s briefing, Dr. Philip Huang, medical director of the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department, walked the committee through the history of that idea. For 65 years, he said, Community Water Fluoridation (CWF) has been a principal contributor to reduction in tooth decay and loss. He pointed in particular to a claim made by the CDC that water fluoridation is “one of the 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century.”


Fluoridation, Huang said, has the support of dozens of medical and public health organizations, including the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization. 


On the other side are groups like Fluoride Free Austin and Fluoride Alert, who were out in force yesterday to dispute health industry (and city staff) claims that water fluoridation is safe and poses no known health risks. Representatives from those groups said that fluoride is actually “extremely toxic,” harmful to infants, and capable of causing cancer, hypothyroidism, and other health conditions.


According to Fluoride Alert literature, fluoride reduces IQ in children, causes brittle bones, and damages, rather than improves, teeth.


Neil Carman, Ph.D., said that his problems with the city’s argument in favor of fluoridation have to do with what “we’re not being told.” Namely that the chemical Austin adds to its water isn’t pure fluoride but Fluorosilicic Acid, a “toxic chemical” used in fertilizers, which he said the Environmental Protection Agency has not evaluated. He called Fluorosilicic Acid a “toxic cocktail” that includes arsenic, chromium, mercury, lead, and selenium.


But Burazer told In Fact Daily that such claims about the dangers of Fluorosilicic Acid are unwarranted because the National Science Foundation performs toxicological evaluations for purity on the chemicals Austin uses. In fact, she said, in the products that the NSF has reviewed, they’ve not detected any atoms that can cause radioactive contamination in Fluorosilicic Acid.


An NSF report provided by the city on tests performed last November shows that Fluorosilicic Acid has acceptable levels of arsenic, mercury, lead, and several other chemicals.


Such studies are what inspired Dr. Mark Peppard, a local dentist, to stand up in favor of continued fluoridation. He told Council Members the most important thing to consider during the debate is what has been proven by scientific study and evaluation.


“When studies are done using scientific method and peer-reviewed studies that are independently researched and verified by other groups, they come back and say it is still the best public health measure to put fluoride in the water, and 0.7 parts per million is the minimum amount known and studied that will prevent decay,” Peppard said. “Until studies are produced (saying otherwise) we have to go with the existing, validated science.”


Then, turning to face the members of the crowd, many of whom booed as he spoke, Peppard said, “It’s our commitment to the truth, it’s our commitment to research, and it’s our commitment to being skeptical in a world of science that legitimizes the advancement of science.”


But retired nutritionist Donald Davis disagreed. “New ideas often began with a pesky minority that is not welcomed by the establishment,” he said to loud applause. “And the public can be ahead of the establishment.

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