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One board member asks: “Don’t people have the right to not take medical advice if they don’t want to?”
To fluoridate or not to fluoridate? The question has nagged the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority board on and off for years, flaring up on occasion like a kind of public-policy toothache.
Last week, the Water Authority hosted a public hearing on whether or not it should resume adding fluoride to municipal drinking water as a public health measure aimed at battling tooth decay. It was the third public meeting on the issue in four years and opinion this year as in years past remained split, according to reports.
Health officials and dental professionals testified in support of supplemental fluoride. Concerned residents testified against it.
The Water Authority ended its fluoridation program in 2011 as the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was preparing a national recommendation on the optimal level of fluoride to maintain in public tap water. The agency came out with its preferred level—0.7 milligrams per liter—in 2015, but the Albuquerque Water Authority board in 2016, after taking public testimony, voted against funding fluoridation.
“Don’t people have the right to not take medical advice if they don’t want to?” Board Member Rob Perry said at the time, according to the Albuquerque Journal. “As a government official, it’s difficult for me to foist this on people.”
In May, the Water Authority board, with new members, quietly voted to restart the fluoridation program.
Board member Trudy Jones, who led the majority in 2016 in opposing fluoridation, again voted in opposition. She said she thought evidence could be used to support both sides of the argument, for or against fluoridation, and she was intent to avoid government overreach.
“Can we, should we, force people to consume a product they don’t want to consume?” she asked.
Tensions around the fraught topic have been fueled by perceptions that the Water Authority has acted opaquely in a matter that affects the health of residents across the region.
Indeed, when news spread of the board’s vote in May in favor of fluoridation, calls came from members of the public, open government organizations and from the Journal’s editorial page for a public hearing on the issue and reconsideration by the board.
With last week’s hearing on the record, the board is scheduled to hold another vote at the end of August on whether to spend $250,000 first to build a fluoridation facility and then about the same amount annually to run it.
Ron Romero, former state dental director, told attendees at the most-recent hearing that the cost of the proposed project amounts to roughly 20 cents per resident per year. Romero added that every $1 invested in fluoride saves $30 in dental bills.
In an editorial published in the Journal at the beginning of June, Dr. Tom Schripsema, executive director of the New Mexico Dental Association, voiced the frustrations of local researchers and dental health professionals.
When the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority stopped optimal fluoridation six years ago there was no fanfare or vote and no calls [by the Albuquerque Journal] for prior notification. In fact, it was almost a year before the water board notified the public of their actions. Since then we have begun to see the effects. It’s high time to get back to the best practice recommended by the CDC, the World Health Organization, the American Dental Association, the American Medical Association and many others, including several national water utility organizations on which ABCWUA relies for best practices.
People have the right to avoid fluoride, if they want, but our tap water already has significant levels of naturally-occurring fluoride, so they will have to find other sources anyway. For the rest of us, the [Water Authority] should make sure the fluoride is set at the optimal level based on 60 years of experience and sound research… the board’s amending the budget for the equipment and supplies necessary to make that happen is the prudent and responsible action of our elected leaders.
Surely some of the kind of frustration expressed by Schripsema is tied to a feeling that there seems to be no end in sight to the debate—a feeling that the local fluoridation debate is just one more of the kind of running public policy debates that seem to crop up every day across the country and that make headlines for seeming to resist the power of scientific research.
Albuquerque Water Authority board member Wayne Johnson spearheaded the move to reintroduce fluoridation this year. He argued that people’s views on the matter had become entrenched.
“I believe fluoride provides dental and oral health,” he said. “I feel strongly in favor of it. I have heard these arguments [against fluoride] before and they are not going to change my mind.”
During the 2016 debate, board member Ken Sanchez said he thought perhaps the Water Authority board members weren’t the right people to make the decision. He argued the issue should be put before the public in a community referendum.
“This is a complex issue,” he said. “It should not be left up to the six of us.”
John Tomasic is a journalist who lives in Boulder, Colorado.