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City medical staffers refute claims of toxic water fluoridation

Thursday, May 19, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

Against all odds, the debate over water fluoridation is still raging at City Hall. Yesterday the City Council’s Health and Human Services Committee convened a discussion about the controversial practice that resulted in dire warnings about how unsafe it is to put chemicals in our water.

The last time the committee held a hearing on the matter, in March, committee members had to ask for civility from the crowd more than once. (See In Fact Daily, March 23, 2011.)  Yesterday’s meeting was crowded with so many vocal opponents of fluoridation that City Hall staff opened up Council Chambers to accommodate the overflow. That room quickly became an echo chamber of boos, hisses, and catcalls.

At issue were the health risks some say result from “contaminating” drinking water with Fluorosilicic Acid. Austin currently fluoridates its drinking water to help improve dental health, using dosage levels based on Environmental Protection Agency recommendations for optimal fluoride levels. The current level is 0.7 milligrams per liter.

Proponents of fluoridation, like Dr. Delton Yarbrough, chair of the Texas Dental Association’s Council on Dental Economics, point to the correlation between the practice and improvement in dental hygiene as proof of its value.

“The overwhelming weight of credible scientific evidence shows that there is a direct relationship between fluoride levels in the drinking water and the prevention of dental decay,” Yarbrough told the committee yesterday.

Yarbrough is in good company. Water fluoridation has the support of dozens of medical and public health organizations, including the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization, and in the late 1990s, the Center for Disease Control called it “one of the 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century.”

 

But fluoridation’s detractors are vocal and passionate.

 

Their representative at yesterday’s meeting, Paul Connett, Ph.D., a professor of chemistry at St. Lawrence University of Hampton, NY, pointed to several studies he said prove that fluoridation causes hypothyroidism and dental fluorosis (which can result in staining and cracking of the teeth) and even damages brain function in children.

 

“There are now 24 studies that indicate that mild to high exposure to fluoride is associated with lower IQs in children,” said Connett. “Overall, our studies have suggested that low levels of fluoride exposure in drinking water had negative effects on children’s intelligence.”

Spurred on by the cheers of a partisan crowd, Connett then asked, “What parent in their right mind would put their children’s teeth above their brains? And what government would support a program aimed at lowering tooth decay … if it lowered the IQ of the population by even a small amount? We know the answer to that: the United States.”

The EPA sets the optimal levels for fluoridation based on studies of average water consumption. The current 0.7 milligrams per liter number is based on the daily ingestion of a typical person. The Maximum Contaminant Level – the point at which the chemical could cause debilitating physical effects – is set at 4 milligrams per liter. Average water consumption in the U.S. is less than one liter a day.

The problem with the EPA’s approach, Connett said, is that it deals with averages and doesn’t take into account individual habits. By putting the chemical in the water without regard for individual drinking habits or medical conditions, authorities are prescribing medication without considering dosage.

“Talking about average people is not the point,” Connett told the committee. “When you’re pouring a toxic substance into the drinking water, you have to protect everyone. You can’t say don’t drink more than two liters of water; it’s utterly preposterous.

“That’s the fatal flaw of fluoridation, the fatal flaw of using the public water supply to deliver medicine: You can control the concentration of fluoride but you can’t control the dose,”

But Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department Medical Director Dr. Philip Huang and Staff Toxicologist Janet Pichette told In Fact Daily that the EPA’s numbers for contaminant levels have a built-in safety margin that all but precludes the possibility of someone drinking enough fluoridated water to suffer any debilitating physical effects.

“The EPA looked at the most debilitating adverse effect of fluoridation and the concentration of fluoride in water that would result in that effect,” said Pichette. “Based on that, they calculate the maximum contaminant level. It’s a conservative number in that it’s set to protect the most sensitive person out there.”

But isn’t it possible that someone could drink enough fluoridated water – 10 liters, say – to suffer the debilitating, even deadly, effects of fluoride?

No, said Huang, before a person could drink that much water he/she would most likely die from a condition like hyponatremia, where an excess of water causes electrolyte levels to drop precipitously.

In other words, we don’t need the specter of fluoride to make us afraid of our drinking water. “At high doses,” Huang said, “water is toxic.”

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