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Council HHS committee votes against fluoride warning in utility bills

Tuesday, November 29, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

The City Council’s Public Health and Human Services Committee struck a blow for science at its meeting last week, throwing its unanimous support behind a staff recommendation not to include a warning on city utility bills about the alleged dangers of water fluoridation.

Fluoride Free Austin, a local advocacy group, brought the resolution to include a warning on water utility bills about the “dangers” associated with treating the city’s drinking water supply with fluorosilicic acid on Oct. 18. (See In Fact Daily, Oct. 19, 2011.) At that meeting, the committee instructed staff to research the pros and cons of such a warning and to look at the best practices of other municipalities.

At last Tuesday’s meeting, staff could not have been more adamant or unequivocal in their opposition to such a warning. Echoing the sentiments of city scientists from the previous meeting, Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department Director Carlos Rivera said, “We are against a warning because we feel that it might mislead the public on what our intentions are.”

Those intentions, Rivera said, are to safely reduce the levels of tooth decay in Austin.

Calling fluoridation a good “population-based public health” practice, and one that has the support of dozens of reputable national and international health organizations – including the American Medical Association, the Center for Disease Control, and the World Health Organization – Rivera staunchly refuted the claims of fluoridation opponents that the practice contributes to health conditions like brittle bones, thyroid dysfunction, and cancer.

“There’s no lack of literature is this area; in fact, the literature is quite clear,” he said. Numerous studies by the Environmental Protection Agency and the CDC have shown that maintaining optimal levels of fluoride in public drinking water dramatically improves dental health while presenting no significant threats.

“We did do a significant review and we only found one organization that went from supporting fluoride to having a neutral opinion, which was the National Kidney Foundation,” Rivera said.

Several members of the local medical and dental community came out to protest the inclusion of any warning on utility bills, claiming doing so would give credence to non-scientific thinking and create unnecessary fear in the community.

Rachel Oswalt, a dental hygienist and second vice-president of the Texas Dental Hygienists’ Association, said water fluoridation is the best way to ensure low levels of tooth decay in Texas, especially among the poor.

“We believe those that prefer not to drink from a public water system can do so,” Oswalt said. “Maintaining an optimal amount of fluoride in water is based on the principle that decisions about public health should be based on what’s healthy for the entire community, not based on the fears of individuals who have extreme opinions about their drinking water.”

Meanwhile, Jeff Brunson, president of the Capital Area Dental Society, pointed out that fluoride is not the only chemical governments put in food and water to improve and ensure public health.

“The American government supports the fortification and adjustment of food and drinks products to support the health of Americans,” said Brunson. “Iodine in salt, vitamin D in milk, iron in bread and breakfast cereals, and chlorine in water. Certainly salt, iron, vitamin D, and even water can be dangerous if consumed in excessive quantities.”

Despite his opposition to a warning, Rivera recommended making information about the city’s stance on the safety of fluoridation, currently on the Austin Water Utility web site, available “through additional avenues,” including at neighborhood centers and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) nutrition program stations, and as an annual insert to be mailed in Austin Energy bills. That information includes recommendations for new parents concerned about the possibility of cosmetic damage (enamel fluorosis) to their babies’ teeth resulting from mixing formula with fluoridated water.

Paraphrasing CDC language, the web site advises that new parents can minimize babies’ exposure to fluoride through breastfeeding, using ready-to-feed formula, and alternating using tap water and non-fluoridated water for formula preparation. 

In making her motion to adopt staff’s recommendation, Council Member Laura Morrison put particular emphasis on providing easy access to such information for parents.

“The staff recommendation makes a lot of sense to me in terms of making sure we get information out there in a general way and that we target venues where infants and parents are going to be,” said Morrison.

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