Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – What’s old was new again at the Feb. 26 City Council meeting as community water fluoridation was up for reconsideration. Approved in 1956 by that era’s council over the objections of a few, fluoridation didn’t truly begin in Arcata until the early 1960s, when necessary equipment was installed.
Hailed by the medical community as one of the 10 greatest public health achievements of the 20th century – along with vaccination, recognition of tobacco’s health consequences and family planning, among others – the substance nonetheless continues to inspire fear and loathing in fringe groups.
The council’s agenda item was raised by Councilmember Paul Pitino, who said it would take a “couple of days” to fully explain his thinking on the matter. He pointed those interested to the Internet, where fluoride denialists with varying levels of expertise hold the substance responsible for a range of frightening maladies – many of which were enumerated by Pitino and others.
However, the first page of its official 2019-2020 goals stipulates that the City Council will “use best available science for future planning,” and in its usual shambolic manner, that’s what it ended up doing by retaining community water fluoridation.
Pitino, a landscaper, pointed to fluoride’s “neurotoxicity” and cited a controversial study indicating that fluoridated water reduces children’s intelligence. “They’re studies and they’re as valid as any other study,” Pitino said. He cautioned against rejecting scientific evidence that clashes with one’s assumptions and said that “most experts agree” that topical application of fluoride, rather than ingestion, is the best treatment method.
He called fluoridation “dubious” and in conflict with the Precautionary Principle, which holds that “First, do no harm.”
He said Sweden had discontinued fluoridation in 1970 (actually 1971) with no negative health consequences, although Sweden already enjoys naturally occuring fluoride at higher-than-average levels.
A 2017 Swedish government study concluded that “fluoride exposure through the drinking water either in the form of natural levels or artificial fluoridation is a good means of improving dental health without risking negative side effects on cognitive development.”
Pitino said that anti-fluoride Measure W – which was rejected by Arcata voters by a roughly 2–1 ratio – took place before an immense amount of new and damning information about fluoride became available, and suggested that fluoride supporters are basing their beliefs on old data.
“In my mind, I would not fluoridate,” Pitino said, with a warning that would give any prospective parent pause: “If you’re pregnant, do not drink fluoridated water because it will affect the IQ of your baby.”
The study he cited has been roundly panned by scientists for its basis in self-reported data, for non-significant findings and for conflating correlation and causation – something alluded to by a dental scholar later in the meeting.
While Pitino stressed the advent of game-changing new information, his arguments – and later, those on both sides of the issue who spoke – largely rehashed the same ones made during 2006’s Measure W debate.
Pitino noted that Arcata’s fluoridated water ends up in Humboldt Bay. “Who gets it?” Pitino asked, accurately answering his own question. “The environment, the bay, all the animals.”
As in 2006, fluoride remains the 13th most abundant element in the Earth’s crust. It is found in seawater at concentrations between 0.86 and 1.4 milligrams per liter, or parts per million.
According to a staff report, the City of Arcata fluoridates at a concentration of 0.7 milligrams per liter.
Thus, Arcata’s drinking water discharges, containing up to half as much fluoride as seawater, dilute rather than increase Humboldt Bay’s fluoride levels and the exposure of wildlife to it.
Were Arcata’s annual discharge of 540,000,000 gallons of treated wastewater to become fluoride-free, it still wouldn't significantly dilute the 353,462,210,000,000,000,000 gallons of water held in the world’s seas. Arcata’s minute 0.0000000000015277446 (1.5 trillionth) percent contribution is a virtual speck in that more-heavily fluoridated ocean.
In perhaps an inadvertent pun, Pitino complained that fluoride opponents were “drowned out” by supporters in 2006.
The ballot option and a town hall meeting on fluoridation gained immediate support from Mayor Michael Winkler. He said he wanted to honor the vote from 2006, but that he was open to having citizens re-decide the matter.
The first speaker was Fortuna dentist and president of the Humboldt-Del Norte Dental Society, Michael Belluscio, DDS. He’s brought a coterie of dental scientists from academia, whom he said were available to provide the “real science” on fluoride.
Bruce Lebel, who opposed fluoridation in 2006, said the city was “medicating the population” with fluoride. He cautioned against arsenic contamination of the water supply via fluoridation.
Cynthia Stewart objected to Bayside residents who use Arcata water not being able to vote on the matter.
“Poison! Poison! Poison!” declared a woman who said she was a retired nurse. She said fluoride opponents were treated like unintelligent anti-Americans in 2006.
Citizen Kelsey Reedy suggested alternative methods for boosting dental health, just as fluoride opponents did in 2006 – though any post-vote action they may have taken to improve dental care is unrecorded.
After fluoride opponents referred to the chemical as a drug, a toxin and as both toxic and hazardous waste, the doctors, dentists and scientists strongly supported fluoride as a major health innovation which is harmless and clinically proven as beneficial. Many agreed though, that a new vote was a good idea.
Former First Five Humboldt Director Wendy Rowan called for an “evidence-based” discussion, and urged continued fluoridation. She said defluoridation would place “an unequal burden on those community members least able to afford or access preventive dental care,” with increased tooth decay resulting and no benefits rendered.
Pitino eventually made a motion to eliminate fluoride on the spot, but that gained no second, only a rebuke by Winkler for dishonoring the peoples’ 2006 vote.
A second Pitino motion to create a ballot measure also failed for lack of a second. Councilmembers Brett Watson and Sofia Pereira said any action to place the matter on the ballot should be done via grassroots voter initiative.