Will Milwaukee follow Tea Party hysteria and ban fluoridated water? - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Will Milwaukee follow Tea Party hysteria and ban fluoridated water?

Adding fluoride to the water supply at times has been the height of debate in this country since its use was discovered. Sometimes a pariah, often a cavity savior, fluoride has the ability to cause some shrill debate.

Now it’s Milwaukee’s turn.

Milwaukee Alderman Jim Bohl is pushing the city to axe all fluoride in the water, claiming the city is “overdosing” its resident on fluoride. Milwaukee’s flirtation with fluoride started in 1953 and Bohl is taking the argument that it was a hazardous experiment at best that didn’t work.  He wants to take the $540,000 the city spends annually to fluoridate water to pay for critical dental services to children in low-income neighborhoods.

James Bohl

Bohl walks down the usual road of arguments about the pitfalls of fluoride: it can cause spotty, pitted brown teeth; may weaken bones; may cause lower IQs; may cause cancer; is an unnecessary addition to what’s become a fluoride-rich diet from other sources; and that Europe is doing just fine without it.

He has support from the nation’s leading fluoride opposition, the always militant-sounding Fluoride Action Network.

Backers, led by the likes of dental associations across the land, call fluoride foes’ contentions, “junk science” and refer to the addition as one of the top 10 health achievements in the last century.

And the Centers for Disease Control, the country’s be-all and end-all when it comes to things about health, sits, kind of, on both sides. It concedes — especially in the case of dental fluorosis, the tooth spotting condition—that some adverse effects could happen, but that fluoride overall is a good thing.

The fluoride foray has hit the national spotlight as well since the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to recommend that water suppliers reduce the maximum amount they put in the water.

About 73 percent of the U.S. population receiving public water gets fluoride. Wisconsin ranks 16th in the percentage of residents getting it. Minnesota (which has a state mandate) ranks 6th; Illinois, 8th; Michigan, 15th; and Ohio, 19th. Maryland ranks first, with 99.8 percent covered, while New Jersey is 49th (14 percent) and Hawaii, 50th (11 percent).

The city of Baltimore puts this statement out to calm the waters: “Fluoride is added to the filtered water at each of the plants to reduce tooth decay. The plants maintain fluoride levels of approximately one part per million of the treated water.

Arguing about fluoride in the water is like dealing with Scientologists — the arguments might be plausible but the presentation is a bit frenetic. Numbers and conspiracies can be tossed about with aplomb.

Anti-fluoride types on the extreme sound like this post on the topic: “Hitler was into fluoride. It targets a part of the brain that makes people less inclined to stand up to authority. That is the other reason (in addition to profit) why the elite corporate interests that control America pull whatever strings that must be pulled to ensure people continue its consumption.”

It’s not a total surprise that the fluoride debate has come back to Wisconsin, the hotbed of fluoride opposition in the first place. In 1950, opponents organized objections based on safety, ethics and its usefulness. It didn’t work, but the state doesn’t have a fluoride mandate to this day. And given Wisconsin being notorious for its connection to anti-communist witch hunts at that time, led by U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy, it’s not a leap that soon the national debate on fluoride included whether or not it was a Communist plot to poison America’s water supply. That leap of logic stayed on the debate table for over a decade.

Milwaukee Alderman Bohl sticks with science in his opposition: “Milwaukee shouldn’t be playing either doctor or dentist to our citizens. We are not qualified to do this and those who urge us to continue accept no legal responsibility for any harm it may be causing.”

A counterpart in Michigan—where the fluoride saga first started with a Grand Rapids experiment in 1945– still sees red. In December, the Township of Hartland banned fluoride. The movement was led by local Tea Party member and Trustee Glenn Harper.

Says Harper:  “Our biggest complaint about Obamacare is that bureaucrats and politicians are going to be making medical decisions for us. Here’s a perfect example of where we’re doing that. We don’t need to do that.”

Twelve states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia have laws for statewide fluoridation.

Minnesota faced a challenge that went to its Supreme Court when that state went fluoride in the 1970s. Brainerd argued that its referendum should supersede the state mandate.

Ohio has mandates on water suppliers of over 5,000 people, but Springfield (pop. 60,000) was grandfathered due to a referendum. Michigan lowered its fluoride vehemence in the late ’70s, but in recent years has put extensive public health resources in studying and monitoring fluoride results. It has also set up a grant program for water suppliers to get fluoride set up.

GOP Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s home state Massachusetts does not mandate communities put fluoride in the water while President Barrack Obama has made it clear he supports fluoride. (See sidebar.)

Bohl could easily throw cost into his argument, given that Milwaukee spends $540,000 a year on fluoride. Many small towns have cited the cost in their opposition, even one community where it counted just $22,000 against the budget.  Instead, he says some of the savings would be put toward a dental program for poor people.

Milwaukee would be the largest city in the U.S. to remove fluoride to date. Poughkeepsie, N.Y. (pop. 80,000) had it in, took it out, put it back in several years later, and then took it out again a year after that.

In Florida, Pinellas County stopped putting fluoride in the water last year, affecting some 700,000 people. But most cities listed on the Fluoride Action League list of rejecters are quite small, and include many towns in Nebraska who opted out of fluoride on election-day referendums in 2008. Canada seems more inclined to get into the fray, with some large cities like Calgary, joining the fluoride opposition.

About the author

Doug Hissom

Doug Hissom writes a weekly environmental column for Baltimore Post-Examiner. He has covered local and state politics in Wisconsin for more than 20 years. Over the course of that time he was publisher, editor, news editor, managing editor and senior writer at the Shepherd Express weekly paper in Milwaukee. He also covered education and environmental issues extensively. He ran the UWM Post in the mid-1980s, winning a Society of Professional Journalists award as best non-daily college newspaper. An avid outdoors person he regularly takes extended paddling trips in the wilderness, preferring the hinterlands of northern Canada and Alaska. After a bet with a bunch of sailors, he paddled across Lake Michigan in a canoe. Contact the author.