Thu04172014

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Feud over fluoride: Los Altos' exploration of water fluoridation sparks debate

Photo Elliott Burr/Town Crier

Kevin Sawyer D.D.S., above, gives Tessa Gross, 4, a lesson in brushing at his Los Altos office. Sawyer said fluoride has been proven to prevent tooth decay.

A preliminary study by city officials on adding fluoride to Los Altos’ water supply has generated a flood of opposition from residents averse to adding another chemical to their drinking water – even if it has health benefits.

Several studies show that fluoride – a naturally occurring element found in rocks, soil and fresh and ocean water – prevents tooth decay in children. Government and health agencies recommend adding it to the public water supply for optimal dental health.

Despite validation from health and environmental agencies that water fluoridation is safe and effective, several residents are concerned about possible side effects.

“I would object to ingesting additional fluoride (in) our drinking water,” said longtime Los Altos resident William Gough. “We should limit our use of fluoride to where it is helpful, that is, directly applied to the enamel of our teeth. We should avoid the possible toxic effects of spreading this fluoride throughout our bodies. It is a poison.”

Council explores fluoridation

At the request of the Los Altos City Council, California Water Service Company (Cal Water) officials last month presented councilmembers information and estimated costs for fluoridating the city’s water.

Councilwoman Val Carpenter said she was “surprised at the fact that our water is not fluoridated” and wanted to learn more about the process.

Cal Water has supplied water to approximately 11,000 connections in Los Altos since 1931. It purchases the water from the Santa Clara Valley Water District. Neither agency fluoridates the water.

Cal Water’s 22 groundwater sources include 18,600 service connections, which serve Los Altos and portions of Los Altos Hills, Mountain View, Sunnyvale and Cupertino. Los Altos receives approximately 70 percent of its water from the district and 30 percent from groundwater wells in the winter months, and approximately 50 percent from each source in summer months.

California’s fluoridated drinking water act, AB 733, became law in 1995. It authorizes water systems with at least 10,000 service connections to fluoridate, but with outside funding – not from ratepayers, shareholders or local taxpayers.

Naturally occurring fluoride levels in Los Altos’ water supply range from 0 to 0.28 milligrams per liter, according to Cal Water District Manager Ron Richardson. Cal Water maintains a neutral position on fluoridation, he added.

Preliminary cost estimates range from $4.5 million to $9.6 million for capital installation and $837,000 for annual maintenance and operations, said Bruce Cabral, water quality manager for the water district. Costs include installation of equipment in the four water-treatment plants, chemical additions and ongoing monitoring and maintenance.

County leads

fluoridation effort

The cities of Mountain View and Palo Alto provide fluoridated water to their residents. Several other water systems in Santa Clara County receive fluoridated water from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, including parts of Sunnyvale, Milpitas, Santa Clara and San Jose.

County Supervisor Liz Kniss last August urged water district board members to adopt an official policy in favor of water fluoridation throughout the county.

Kniss said her background in nursing helped her recognize the importance of fluoridation in promoting and protecting the oral health of children, adults and seniors.

“I grew up without fluoridated water, and I had more cavities than teeth,” she said. “The goal is to improve the health of the county, overall. Close to half a million children will benefit from (water fluoridation). My goal is to have fluoridation in place (throughout the county) in the next five years.”

When fluoridation began

Community water fluoridation, widespread since 1945, is touted as one of the 10 greatest public-health achievements of the 20th century by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Studies conducted by the American Dental Association report that fluoridation of community water supplies is safe and effective in preventing dental decay – reducing it by up to 40 percent in children and adults. Every $1 spent on fluoridation saves $38 in dental treatment, according to the ADA.

Science has proven that fluoride “in very small doses” prevents tooth decay in children, said Kevin Sawyer, D.D.S., who practices in Los Altos Rancho Shopping Center.

“We know fluoride works,” he said. “Fluoride keeps the calcium together, and we can see and feel the changes in the teeth.”

Young children benefit from water fluoridation while their permanent teeth are being formed, whereas the effect among adults is only topical, Sawyer said.

If it benefits only young children, “Why poison the whole population?” asked longtime Los Altos resident Christiane Creighton. “It’s ethically and morally wrong.”

Dosage is crucial

Los Altos parents can probably afford the supplements and dental treatments required for their children if city officials decide not to fluoridate the water, but those living in poorer communities may not be able to, Sawyer said.

Water fluoridation is tricky, and the correct dosage is important, as the amount of water people drink is varied and cannot be regulated, he added.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Jan. 7 announced 0.7 milligrams per liter as the current standard for fluoride in drinking water, replacing the previous temperature-dependent range of 0.7 to 1.2. The EPA is initiating a review of the maximum amount of fluoride allowed in drinking water.

Controversy and concern

Gough, who’s had several years of experience in research and funding in the physical sciences, is skeptical about the agencies’ standards and said he has yet to see sufficient supporting evidence that overcomes the uncertainties involved. He believes they have neglected to study the effects of fluoride on the human body.

“It has taken more than 50 years for the government to recommend lowering the levels of fluoride in drinking water, which was due to the observation of spots on children’s teeth,” Gough said. “What about changes in our bodies that we can’t visually observe due to ingesting fluoride?”

Fluoride toothpaste applied directly to the enamel of the teeth is an effective cavity protection, he said, but fluoride salts are toxic and drinking fluoride-rich groundwater can cause fluoride poisoning, which is why fluoride toothpaste tubes carry a warning.

Contrary to popular belief, “fluoride is neither safe nor effective,” said Los Altos resident Tom Rogers, who has worked in the computer industry for more than two decades. A waste product of aluminum and fertilizer manufacturing, fluoride is toxic enough to be used as a rat poison, he said.

“We as a society are being led down a garden path and being sold a bill of goods,” Rogers said. “We are already exposed to a plethora of toxins in our daily lives. We should not be adding them to our drinking water.”

Los Altos resident Ed Falsetti agreed.

“I feel there’s a mountain of evidence against fluoride,” he said. “It’s a poison, a toxic chemical.”

“It’s alarming to think public water is a vehicle to treat people with chemicals,” said Maureen Jones, archivist and founder of Citizens for Safe Drinking Water.

Several studies in the Journal of the American Medical Association have linked fluoridated water to a rising rate in hip fractures among women in their perimenopause phase, Jones said.

While the issue of fluoridation is a lightning rod that raises links to cancer and other health problems, Kniss said there is no factual evidence or validity to such claims.

According to the World Health Organization’s Web site, fluoride has beneficial effects on teeth at low concentrations in drinking water, but excessive exposure to fluoride can result in adverse effects ranging from mild dental fluorosis to crippling skeletal fluorosis. With the protection of public health as its primary goal, WHO recommends that local authorities take into account social, cultural, environmental and economic considerations before making a decision on water fluoridation.

Next steps

Matters of funding, engineering and logistics still must be resolved, Los Altos officials said.

Councilmembers and city staff will continue to monitor the water district’s activities before making a decision, Carpenter said.

Water district officials plan to hold a public workshop in March.

For more information, visit www.valleywater.org.

Contact Jana Seshadri at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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