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Experts, activists battle over fluoride in Soddy-Daisy water supply

Board members of Soddy-Daisy’s water system are set to vote today on whether to continue their policy of adding fluoride to the city’s water supply.

Several residents have questioned fluoride’s effectiveness and claim it is a health risk. Some of them showed up at last month’s meeting of the board of the North West Utility District, which supplies water to about 7,500 customers in Soddy-Daisy, Falling Water, Mowbray Mountain and Sale Creek, asking that the board stop adding fluoride to the water, despite assurances from several local dentists that fluoride is both safe and effective at preventing cavities.

Some residents claim fluoridation has been linked to health problems and has not been shown to be very effective in stopping cavities.

In a press release, a group called the Soddy Daisy Citizens Against Water Fluoridation said that “while fluoride in drinking water does NOT decrease rates of tooth decay, numerous studies show that these chemicals have a wide array of devastating health effects, as well as environmental and economic concerns.”

Several local dentists who were also at the meeting disagreed.

“Fluoride has been shown over the years to reduce tooth decay rates, and the best across-the-board way for people to get that is through the water system,” said Dr. Brian Schenck, president of the Chattanooga Area Dental Society, in an interview Monday. Schenck told the water system commissioners at their meeting last month he believes they should continue to inject fluoride into the water supply.

Fluoride was not recognized as a tool to fight cavities until the 1940s, when researchers tried to figure out what caused a brown stain on the teeth of people who lived in certain U.S. neighborhoods. They discovered the cause of the stain was a high level of the naturally occurring chemical fluoride in local water supplies. But they also discovered that high levels of the chemical significantly reduced dental cavities.

Health officials launched a nationwide effort to get local water systems to add fluoride to their drinking water and, by 1992, about 56 percent of the nation’s water supply was fluoridated, including 70 percent of all towns of more than 100,000 population. In Tennessee, about 54 percent of the state’s 460 water systems add fluoride to their water, including all of the water systems in the state’s four largest counties, according to the Tennessee Department of Health.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called the fluoridation of the water supply one of the 10 greatest public health successes of the 20th Century.

CDC researchers noted that reducing cavities also meant fewer people needed expensive dentures and dental care.

“Tooth loss is no longer considered inevitable, and increasingly adults in the United States are retaining most of their teeth for a lifetime,” the CDC noted. “For example, the percentage of persons aged 45-54 years who had lost all their permanent teeth decreased from 20 percent in 1960-1962 to 9.1 percent in 1988-1994.”

From the beginning, fluoridation has had its critics, either those who claim it is a health hazard, or others who saw a government plan to add chemicals to the water supply as a possible conspiracy.

For example, the Soddy-Daisy debate mirrors a similar one last year in Lyerly, Ga.

An online petition being circulated by the anti-fluoride residents in Soddy-Daisy claims the additive “causes cancer, impairs bone strength, impairs IQ, impairs kidneys, impairs thyroid, recedes gums, depresses heart, depresses cell growth and increases infertility.”

“My main concern is the health issue,” said Chiesa Smith, one of the residents opposing the addition of fluoride. “There is recent science showing the danger of fluoride in the body.

“Fertilizer corporations make a profit selling hazardous waste as a ‘safe and beneficial’ additive for teeth,” she said. “We do not enjoy being used as a hazardous waste dump.”

The vast majority of scientists reject those claims.

“Since 1950, opponents of water fluoridation have claimed it increased the risk for cancer, Down syndrome, heart disease, osteoporosis and bone fracture, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, low intelligence, Alzheimer’s disease, allergic reactions, and other health conditions,” CDC researchers said in a report on fluoridation. “The safety and effectiveness of water fluoridation have been re-evaluated frequently, and no credible evidence supports an association between fluoridation and any of these conditions.”

The National Cancer Institute agreed.

“After examining more than 2.2 million cancer death records and 125,000 cancer case records in counties using fluoridated water, the researchers found no indication of increased cancer risk associated with fluoridated drinking water,” researchers concluded.

From the 1950s, some critics have argued that consumers should not be forced to drink fluoridated water, but instead should be able to choose whether to protect their teeth against cavities by choosing toothpaste with fluoride.

“This is the only chemical we put in the water to treat it for medical purposes,” said water system general manager David Collett. “Is it the water company’s responsibility to be medicating with the water?”

Dentists argue that is shortsighted because many people don’t brush their teeth regularly, while fluoridation guarantees everyone will be protected against cavities even if they do nothing.

“The problem is, some children in the community would most likely miss out if the parents were making the decision to get the fluoride elsewhere,” Schenck said. “A tooth cavity cannot be ignored. It would be advantageous to prevent this rather than have to treat it. You’d have much less lost time at work or time at school, and less expense.”

The citizens’ group disagreed, arguing most of the fluoride in the water supply is wasted. Only about one percent of the water supply ends up as drinking water, the group said, while the other 99 percent is used for watering lawns, washing cars or flushing toilets and therefore has no medical impact.

In addition, adding fluoride is costly for the water system.

North West spends about $20,000 annually for fluoride, Collett said. The water system is planning a $9 million expansion and its components will be more expensive if fluoride is added to the water, Collett said.

“It is damaging to the pipes and fittings because it is an acid,” he said.

The seven commissioners are to vote on the issue at their meeting tonight.

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