Every year in Traverse City, commissioners budget almost $30,000 to keep adding fluoride to the water supply. That usually passes with little fanfare. But this year it’s up for extra debate, and a group in town is raising some fierce opposition.
Health officials say it's safe and effective
Officials at the Grand Traverse County Health Department made a unique move Friday morning in the cause of dental health.
They called a news conference.
It’s not something any of them probably thought they’d ever have to do, especially since they were arguing in support of water fluoridation – standard practice in Traverse City since 1951.
“Community water fluoridation has been proven by decades and decades of studies to be safe and effective for everyone," County Health Officer Wendy Trute said. "And from a public health standpoint looking at population health that’s what we’re going to promote. Prevention of dental care. It prevents tooth decay.”
In 20 years, Trute says she’s never had to confront anyone opposed to the practice. But Boyne City is ending its program. And at Friday’s news conference in Traverse City, there was confrontation.
A group called “Fluoride Free Traverse City” is pushing to remove fluoride from the city’s water supply. They have support from at least one city commissioner, Mayor Pro Tem Jim Carruthers. He says the additive Traverse City uses is different than the fluoride found naturally in low levels in well water:
“My argument all along has been one: the chemical that we use is an industrial waste product from the agriculture industry for making fertilizers, that’s a known neurotoxin."
For the past six years Carruthers has voted against purchasing fluoride, which costs Traverse City about $20,000 to $30,000 each year.
He doesn’t dispute that fluoride can be good for people’s teeth in toothpaste form. But he thinks the city should offer residents a choice.
“I’m saying we all live in northern Michigan," Carruthers said. "Water is our most precious natural resource. We should have a choice to have clean fresh water. And if you want to put fluoride in your water, you should be able to supplement that with tablet form.”
An inexpensive public health measure
But others worry ending the long-standing practice would really hurt the poor. Leslie Videki of Dental Clinics North says tooth decay is the most common dental problem they see -- especially for kids.
“And sometimes it’s too late," Videko says. "A simple filling isn’t going to help them. Where the tooth either needs to have a root canal and a crown put on or at worst case scenario -- extracted.”
Many of the patients at this clinic are on Medicaid or uninsured.
“People who are poor may not have as much direct access to toothpaste," Health Officer Wendy Trute said. "Maybe they’re only brushing once a day instead of two or three times. And they may not have access to expensive fluoride treatments or rinses. So it’s going to benefit those who can’t afford some of the other treatments even more.”
Alongside health officials at the news conference Friday stood Traverse City Mayor Michael Estes. He’ll vote to support fluoridation at the meeting tonight.
And according to a recent poll he has the support of 60 percent of city residents. But if Friday’s news conference is any indication – the opposition will also be vocal.