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Council committee to consider fluoride statement on utility bills

Friday, October 21, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

More than six months after opening the door to debate over the issue of fluoridation of the city’s water supply, the Council Public Health and Human Services Committee continues to deal with the fallout of that decision. For an hour and a half on Wednesday, opponents of water fluoridation spoke passionately in support of a resolution to put a warning on city utility bills that would address the so-called “dangers” said to be associated with the process.


Austin currently adds about 0.5 mg per liter of fluorosilicic acid to the city water supply in order to reach the Center for Disease Control-determined optimal level of 0.7 mg of fluoride. The CDC dropped that level from 1.2 mg this past January.  


Proponents of fluoridation – including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, the American Cancer Society, the American School Health Association, the Alzheimer’s Association, the American Dental Association, the American Nurses Association, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Research Council, the U.S. Public Health Service, and the World Health Organization, among others – say the process reduces tooth decay and loss. 


According to the CDC Web site, “The safety of fluoride in drinking water at levels recommended for preventing tooth decay has been affirmed by numerous scientific and professional groups. Scientists have found a lack of evidence to show an association between water fluoridation and a negative impact on people, plants, or animals.” The group went so far as to call fluoridation one of the 10 great public health achievements of the 20th Century.


Opponents of fluoridation, meanwhile, such as Fluoride Free Austin and Fluoride Alert, dispute the claims of those organizations and say that fluorosilicic acid is an “extremely toxic” chemical, a “poison” capable of causing cancer, hypothyroidism, brittle bones, and mental problems in children.


At Wednesday’s meeting, those groups were out in force to push for a label on all city utility bills alerting the public to the dangers of fluoridation. In addition, speakers warned about the perils of medicating the public without their consent and without dosage control.


“Every fluoridated city in the US has a duty to inform the public of the non-pharmaceutical, fluoride waste they are adding to our water!!!,” read a flyer being passed out by members of Fluoride Free Austin. 


Janet Pichette, staff toxicologist with the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department, told the committee that, even after the CDC’s recalibration of optimal fluoride levels, the city’s official position on fluoridation levels remains the same. 


“Over the last year , we have reconsidered the information that was provided based on the National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council, as well as recommendations from CDC and the EPA,” Pichette said. “Basically our position stands based on those initial recommendations.”


In response to a question from Council Member Chris Riley, Pichette also said she is unaware of any other municipalities that issue fluoridation warnings.


Though not a warning per se, the city does already provide information about its water quality to the public. Both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality require the city to make available an annual water-quality report that shows what is in the water, what the maximum allowed levels of contaminants are, and what levels of those contaminants are found in the Austin water supply. That report goes out to all AWU customers in July as a bill insert, said Assistant Director of Treatment Jane Burazer.


“On top of that, in the ‘Water Quality Reports’ section on the (water utility Web site) we give monthly data as well as quarterly water quality data throughout the year,” said Burazer. That data includes information about fluoride, information, Burazer said, that has been updated since the CDC’s action in January.


That apparently wasn’t enough for the members of the committee, who voted unanimously to support a motion directing staff to undertake a survey of health organizations to get a sense of developments in the field since January, look at what other jurisdictions have done concerning warnings on utility bills, and offer recommendations at the committee’s November meeting.


“One option might be a very short reference somewhere on the utility bill or on an insert telling people that if they’re concerned about fluoride or other substances in the water they can go to (a Web site) link,” said Riley. “That information could be out there year-round at no cost. I think there are a variety of ways we can get that information out there.”

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