The Loma Prietan - April 2013

Chapter Questioning Water Fluoridation Plans

Katja Irvin and Maika Horjus

H. Trendley Dean’s studies of optimal levels for water fluoridation were fascinating epidemiology then.  It’s not clear, however, that the SCVWD’s plan to fluoridate our water is a good idea. Photo: US Government
H. Trendley Dean’s studies of optimal levels for water fluoridation were fascinating epidemiology then. It’s not clear, however, that the SCVWD’s plan to fluoridate our water is a good idea. Photo: US Government

Perhaps you are thinking, “Isn’t our water fluoridated already?” Or, “Isn’t fluoridation universally good for public and dental health?” Or, “isn’t fluoridation a no-brainer?”

The answers are “no” and “maybe or maybe not” and “no.”

Currently, the Santa Clara Valley Water District (SCVWD) does not fluoridate our drinking water because it is not required to do so. Although in 1995 the California legislature passed AB 733, the Fluoridation Act, requiring water suppliers with 10,000 service connections or more to fluoridate their water, SCVWD has only 27 direct connections. It’s mostly a water wholesaler, selling water to local municipalities and private retailers, who then distribute it to homes and businesses. As a result, some residents within district boundaries have fluoridated water while others do not.

The Chapter Water Committee is following Santa Clara Valley Water District’s (SCVWD) new proposal to begin fluoridating the water, and we’re questioning the idea.

The facts of fluoridation aren’t as rosy as the image.

First, most of the water ends up going down the drains of our toilets, showers, dishwashers, and laundry machines without ever touching our teeth. From there, it (and its fluoride) goes into our sewers and the bay. More of it makes its way from our gardens into our creeks and the bay, where it can damage marine life and ecosystems. Before we fluoridate our water supply, SCVWD should assess these potential impacts. This assessment should examine background fluoride levels and estimate what the levels will be after fluoridation. The district should do an in-depth environmental analysis (Environmental Impact Report) of this fluoridation project.

Next, the fluoride compounds used by most municipalities are not equivalent to calcium fluoride, which occurs naturally in many water sources. One commonly used fluoridation compound is, in fact, a toxic waste by-product from the mining and processing of phosphate, used to produce fertilizers and phosphoric acid (used in carbonated drinks). If it were not added to drinking water, it would need to be disposed of as hazardous waste. The district’s water treatment plants would need to be retrofitted to accommodate hydrofluosilicic acid or sodium fluoride. For hydrofluosilicic acid, employees would need to take extreme precautions (e.g., by wearing hazard suits) to handle the materials.

Questionable Health Benefits
The Water Committee wonders whether we should study or take these risks at all, given that the benefits are questionable. Even proponents of water fluoridation confirm that fluoride applied directly to the teeth—through fluoridated toothpaste, mouth wash, or dental treatments—does much more to prevent tooth decay than fluoridated water. With fluoridated products now ubiquitous, the case for fluoridated water becomes far less convincing.

It is worth noting that very few European countries fluoridate their drinking water, and yet rates of tooth decay there have declined at rates comparable to those in the US. The decrease is due to factors such as better dental care, education, and fluoridated products; fluoridated water is unnecessary.

Although it is difficult to understand given the facts above, US public health and dental health organizations still claim that, “Fluoridation is the most equitable major dental disease prevention program that is available to low income, multi-ethnic, underserved populations, the majority of whom do not have access to dental care or preventive care.” Santa Clara County Public Health Officer Dr. Marty Fenstersheib said the decision to fluoridate would go a long way toward addressing poor dental health among children in the county. We think that these statements are questionable.

There are also significant cost questions. The Health Trust, First Five of Santa Clara County, and the California Dental Association Foundation have agreed to reimburse the district up to $2.4 million in capital costs to fluoridate all three district water treatment plants. However, retrofitting SCVWD and San Jose Water Company facilities is projected to cost more than ten times this amount—about $25 million, plus at least $1 million per year in ongoing operating costs. Ratepayers, it seems, will pay most of the bill.

As a community, we should at least be extremely cautious before embarking on this costly project with questionable outcomes. There is a dearth of high quality scientific research on both the positive and negative impacts of fluoridating water supplies. The District should be required to conduct a full analysis of the human and environmental impacts locally and should consider alternative ways to improve dental health with an equivalent amount of funding.

Katja Irvin, the Chapter’s Water Committee Chair, enjoys using her background in urban and regional planning to advocate on the side of nature and the environment.

Maika Horjus, Chapter Conservation Programs Intern, is excited about getting involved in conservation advocacy.