For the first time since 1952, Burlington is reexamining its longstanding policy of fluoridating the city's water supply. On March 9, the Burlington Board of Health voted to initiate a public dialogue on fluoridation. The five-member advisory panel has scheduled public forums on June 15 and 23 to debate whether the chemical additive is a benefit or detriment to public health.
The battle over fluoridation may sound like something out of an animated 1970s toothpaste commercial, pitting the "peace-loving citizens of Toothopolis" against the "Cavity Creeps." But fluoridation opponents are armed with recent scientific evidence that they claim makes a compelling case for discontinuing the practice. Opposing them are experts with the Vermont Department of Health, who contend that fluoridation is still a safe, effective and inexpensive tool for reducing childhood tooth decay, especially among low-income families that don't have access to routine dental care.
For more than 50 years, water fluoridation has been a widely accepted -- and largely uncontroversial -- practice throughout much of the United States. Currently, about 66 percent of the U.S. population receives fluoridated water in their homes, including 56 percent of Vermonters. Fluoridation has long been endorsed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, the American Dental Association and to a lesser extent, the World Health Organization. It is commonly credited for the continued decline in tooth decay throughout the industrialized world.
But while some anti-fluoride activists concede that there may be benefits to topical exposure via dental treatments and toothpastes, they strongly warn against ingesting it. A growing body of evidence, much of which is outlined in a newly published book entitled The Fluoride Deception by Christopher Bryson, points to a list of ailments linked to fluoride consumption. Among them is dental fluorosis -- the brown or white spotting of teeth -- which, the Journal of Public Health Dentistry warns, can be caused by using fluoridated water to prepare baby formulas.
Other studies, done in the United States and abroad, have shown links between fluoride consumption and increased risks of arthritis, osteoporosis, hyperthyroidism, neurotoxicity, decreased IQs in children, female infertility, and genetic damage. One study, conducted by the National Toxicology Program, a division of the National Institutes of Health, found that fluoride causes bone cancer in rats. Another study, published in the journal Reproductive Toxicology, revealed that fluoride interferes with the reproductive systems of animals. And fluoridation critics are buzzing about a new study, due out in the next couple of weeks, which purportedly links fluoride to increased rates of certain cancer in humans.
Leading the anti-fluoridation charge in Vermont is Michael Connett, project director of the Burlington-based Fluoride Action Network. FAN, an international coalition of activists, scientists and concerned citizens, has waged a number of effective campaigns to convince municipalities to stop fluoridating their water.
According to Connett, the preponderance of scientific evidence now shows "no significant difference" in rates of tooth decay between populations with fluoridated drinking water and those without it. He points out that about 98 percent of the public water systems in western Europe aren't fluoridated -- and rates of childhood tooth decay in those countries are no worse than in the United States. Moreover, he adds, the body of evidence now shows that the problems associated with fluoride ingestion outweigh purported benefits.
"Whenever you raise these basic, important questions, instead of getting answers to specific questions, it usually comes down to, 'The ADA supports it, the CDC supports it, the World Health Organization supports it,'" says Connett. "Well, can't we answer these questions for ourselves?"
Increasingly, the anti-fluoridation movement is challenging the prevailing opinion in the U.S. public health establishment. Since 1999, more than 70 communities nationwide have rejected fluoridation programs. In November 2000, Brattleboro residents ignored the recommendation of the state health department and voted not to fluoridate their water supply. Two years later, a dental-health committee in Bennington recommended ending the city's fluoridation plan. In both cities, Connett says, many citizens felt it was better to err on the side of caution than to expose an entire population to the questionable compound.
Burlington could become the next city to kick the fluoride habit. Some city councilors, including Cheryl McDonough (P-Ward 2), says it's time for an open and honest debate on the issue. In 2003, she introduced a resolution asking the City Council to reexamine its fluoridation policy. That effort went nowhere.
"As is quite typical, the science of 50 years said, 'This is the way it is, this is what we have to do,' and it was quickly brushed aside," McDonough recalls. "But I think that many of the councilors, if I may speak for them, are willing to listen and are very open to the new information and science that's out there." McDonough emphasizes that she hasn't made up her own mind yet, but has a number of concerns she'd like addressed.
Ultimately, the City Council will decide the fluoridation question -- first, with an appointment to the five-member Burlington Board of Health. Two members have already indicated that they're inclined to recommend against the practice. Another, Debra Clemmer, is due to step down in early June. Her replacement, to be appointed by the City Council, will likely determine whether the board votes up or down on fluoridation.
Repeated calls to the Vermont Department of Health for comment were unreturned as of press time. But the Burlington Board of Health's decision to challenge a long-standing public-health policy is reportedly creating quite a stir there. "The Department of Health is like a beehive that's been swatted with a broomstick," Connett notes. "They're buzzing and they're really upset."