Fluoridated water is a debate that still has teeth

Mike Hendricks / The Kansas City Star /

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Have you ever heard of a thing called fluoridation? Fluoridation of water? Do you realize that fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous communist plot we have ever had to face? — Gen. Jack D. Ripper in the 1964 Cold War-era satire “Dr. Strangelove”

It’s easy today to scoff at the paranoid fringe that once feared that adding fluoride to American water supplies would turn us into commie zombies.

But 70 years after fluoridation began, fervent opposition continues.

In Kansas, Wichita voters rejected water fluoridation last fall for at least the third time since the 1960s and it wasn’t even close, sparking a call for statewide restrictions.

The fight against fluoridation is by no means confined to conservative states like Kansas.

In Portland, protests arose from the left last fall when the city council voted to begin adding fluoride to that city’s water supply.

These days, opponents base their arguments on health concerns.

They say they have the science to show that possible side effects of fluoridation could make people sick or stupid in the name of preventing tooth decay.

“I am very concerned,” said Mark Gietzen, a longtime anti-abortion crusader who heads the Kansas Republican Assembly, which calls itself the Republican wing of the Republican Party.

Four months ago, Gietzen had no opinion on fluoride. The topic put him to sleep. But he was awakened during the contentious campaign in Wichita.

Gietzen is now leading an effort to impose new statewide regulations that would include warning notices on water bills, as well as restrictions on the type of substances that can be added to tap water.

No bill has been introduced yet, but advocates of fluoridation say they are poised for a fight.

“The anti-fluoride folks are pretty passionate,” said Kevin Robertson, executive director of the Kansas Dental Association.

However, their arguments against water fluoridation are based on what Robertson calls “junk science,” and he vows that his group and others will work hard to convince lawmakers of that.

“We’re going to try to keep as much of Kansas fluoridated as possible,” he said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, water fluoridation ranks as one of the 10 greatest public health achievements of the 20th century. It has led to a dramatic decrease in cavities among America’s youths.

Most people in the Kansas City area drink fluoridated water.

So do nearly two thirds of Kansans, according to the federal government. Compare that to 74 percent nationwide and upward of 80 percent in Missouri.

One reason the percentage isn’t higher in the Sunflower State is that Wichita, the largest city in Kansas, has never fluoridated its water.

So a national foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, sought to change that. It spearheaded a petition drive to put a measure on the general election ballot that would have forced the local water utility to bring the fluoride level up to the recommended amount.

But when the votes were tallied, the vote was 60 to 40 percent against, thanks to a well-organized and well-financed opposition.

Robertson attributed the result to doubts raised by fluoride opponents in ads paid for by the conservative Kansas Taxpayers Network.

“They dumped so much misinformation out,” he said. “The Internet is so full of stuff, and the people opposed to it threw out so much of it.”

But Gietzen said the research he has read raises troubling issues.

For example, he and other opponents say, fluoridation has links to cancer and arthritis.

Proponents, however, note that the overwhelming majority of medical experts say adding fluoride at the proper level is safe and effective.

Another concern raised last fall by Wichitans Opposed to Fluoridation was that fluoride additives are different and more troublesome than the naturally occurring kind.

Proponents countered that most of the fluoride used in water systems is from phosphate rock — which, only after the fluoride is extracted, is used to make fertilizer.

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