Fun With Fluoride, Continued

Enviro Board wants answers

Tanks of fluoride at Ullrich Water Treatment Plant
Tanks of fluoride at Ullrich Water Treatment Plant (Photo by John Anderson)

Opponents of water fluoridation got a boost last week when the city's Environ­ment­al Board, along split lines, voted to recommend the city take yet another look at its fluoridation policies. And aside from grudgingly reaffirming the board's interest in the fluoride question, the motion also signaled the disappointment – even anger – some board members felt with the City Council for putting them again in the crossfire of the fluoridation fight.

In August, prodded by the same citizens who regularly speak against the additive before council, the board called for an independent examination of the Austin Water Utility's fluoridation practices, with input coming from – but not limited to – the utility, the Watershed Protection Department, and the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department. No council action was initiated, but a city staff report was compiled, overseen by Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza and drawing on the above groups but with no independent or scientific review. When the pro-fluoridation report was released last month, opponents decried it as a whitewash, and the Environ­mental Board – which didn't learn about the report until after the fact – was vexed to have been left out of the loop.

At its Dec. 2 meeting, the board received a briefing on the report, inspiring several citizens – all anti-fluoride – to address the board, with manners ranging from intelligent questioning to, frankly, uninformed and ideologically bound rudeness. Neil Carman, a scientist with the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, spoke at length; his testimony included a 26-point list of "omissions of science" in the city report. Carman touched on, among several other matters, the Environmental Protection Agency classification of Austin's fluoridating component – hydrofluorosilicic acid – as a hazardous waste, the American Dental Associa­tion's warning against giving fluoride to infants, and a dearth of critical, peer-reviewed scientific literature in the city's report. He concluded that the report contains "scientific gaps, omissions, errors, and missing evidence and would likely not earn a passing grade in undergraduate biology." Former Alamo Heights City Council Member Bill Kiel also spoke of how his city stopped fluoridation. However, other speakers lacked Carman's knowledge – or tact. One asked to use his allotted time to question Health and Human Services Department Med­ic­al Director Philip Huang, which devolved into a badgering set of attempts to verbally corner him, finally provoking an intervention from the chair. Another speaker justified her fluoride fears with that hoary, Reaganesque joke: "I'm from the federal government, and I'm here to help."

Once the speakers finished, board member Phil Moncada moved that the board issue another recommendation, asking the city to address the numerous issues Carman raised and calling for an independent scientific inquiry. In opposition to the motion, board member Jon Beall said that some of the speakers' concerns, like fluoridation's links to bone cancers, "are a bit misleading" and that he wouldn't be supporting the motion. Mary Ann Neely also demurred, suggesting the issue be addressed on a federal level (though fluoridation decisions fall to individual cities).

Ultimately, the motion passed 4-3 (Beall, Neely, and Bob Anderson voting no), with member Rodney Ahart speaking for the majority in saying its vote wasn't one against fluoride per se but as a call to "actually get us the information we need ... and then let us make a more informed decision." Just before the vote, Chair Mary Gay Maxwell expressed her dissatisfaction with the disconnected process. "This could have been avoided," she said. "We did not have to have it come to this level of escalation at this point, and it didn't have to come back to our board, had our board request even been responded to in any way, shape, or form." Registering her "extreme displeasure," she concluded, "This makes me very disturbed; it's very hard to be the chair of a board that's been put in this position."

A few days later, Maxwell said she's hopeful that by giving citizen concerns further scientific scrutiny, the acrimony surrounding the debate can be lessened. "I was trained as a psychologist, and one of the things I understand is if people are heard more clearly and responded to with some understanding and respect, their positions don't always stay so polarized." Possibly so, but with fluoride's detractors seeing it as such an evil, it's hard to see how anything short of completely removing it from the water will satisfy them.

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Environmental Board, Austin Water Utility, fluoride, Neil Carman, Phil Moncada, Jon Beall, Mary Ann Neely, Rodney Ahart, Mary Gay Maxwell

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