“The great Milwaukee fluoride debate is over,” reported Don Walker in his July 24 story for the city’s Journal Sentinel newspaper.
Walker and his colleagues at the newspaper had been writing about the battle since May, when city Alderman Jim Bohl launched a vocal campaign to rid the city’s tap water of fluoride.
Bohl argued that the practice of community water fluoridation was antiquated, unhealthy and a waste of taxpayers’ money.
“We are endangering the health of our children and citizens by adding poison to our water in a failed effort to reduce tooth decay,” Bohl wrote in a letter to the newspaper.
Public health officials and state and local dental groups disagreed. They stood up for the practice, which has been hailed by the Centers for Disease Control as one of the great public health achievements of the 20th century.
People are fighting over fluoride in other places too, says Shelly Gehshan, director of the Pew Children’s Dental Campaign (Editor’s note: Pew Charitable Trusts supports AHCJ’s core topic coverage of oral health.). “Some of them are small towns whose decisions don’t create big headlines,” Gehshan said. “A coalition in Wichita, Kansas, is backing a proposal to start fluoridating the city’s drinking water, while a city councilman in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is leading an effort to end fluoridation there,” she added.
For more than 65 years, communities across the United States have been supplementing naturally occurring fluoride in water supplies to promote oral health. At what are considered optimum levels, numerous studies have shown fluoride reduces cavities. But too much fluoride can be a bad thing, public health officials have acknowledged. Consumption at excess levels may cause fluorosis and skeletal deformities, research has found.
The fluoride level long regarded by health officials as optimal for cavities prevention was set at a range of 0.7 milligrams to 1.2 milligrams per liter of water. But in January 2011, officials at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, while continuing to stress the benefits of fluoride, proposed that the recommended level of fluoride in drinking water be set at the lowest end of that range. They noted that the lower standard reflected research into changing water consumption patterns over time. In addition, Americans are getting fluoride from a range of sources that did not exist in the 1940s when fluoridation first got underway.
Ultimately, Milwaukee officials used that HHS recommendation to reach a compromise. They did not eliminate the city’s water fluoridation program as Bohl originally called for. Instead, they ordered that the level of fluoride in the city water be reduced from 1.1 milligrams per liter to 0.7 milligrams per liter, the Journal Sentinel reported.
The Wisconsin Dental Association and its local group, the Greater Milwaukee Dental Association praised the decision.
“The WDA and GMDA welcome the opportunity to work with the Milwaukee Health Department, Children’s Health Alliance of Wisconsin and other public health advocates in educating all city residents and customers of Milwaukee Water Works of the many dental health benefits community fluoridation provides to people of all ages and all socio-economic backgrounds,” the groups said a statement.
And that is how Walker ended his story on Milwaukee’s great fluoride debate.