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Fluoride in Utah? Well, Cold War’s over

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The Cold War is over, communism is dead and - perhaps not so incidentally - fluoridation is back.

For the first time in 20 years, public health officials are exploring the feasibility of adding fluoride to municipal water systems in Salt Lake County.Advocates say times have changed since critics of public-water fluoridation attacked the practice as a foreign conspiracy to poison America.

"In general, those old fears have been put to rest," said Lewis Garrett, director of the Family Health Services Division at the Salt Lake City-County Health Department.

The agency in recent weeks has quietly approached numerous public water companies around the Salt Lake Valley to begin research on whether it's technically workable to fluoridate water in the area.

Similar activities are occurring in Park City, Orem and Tooele.

More than 60 percent of U.S. public-water supplies are treated by the chemical, which is added as a supplement to prevent tooth decay. In Utah, only about 2.5 percent of the population drinks fluoridated water, limited to a handful of small cities and every military base in the state.

A scientific poll commissioned by the Salt Lake Public Utilities Department last month found 70 percent of 705 local residents surveyed were in favor of fluoridation.

But the Salt Lake Valley's diverse system of water sources, which range from dozens of wells to numerous reservoirs, would create an immediate challenge to uniform distribution of fluoride, said LeRoy Hooton Jr., director of the department.

"The problems with trying to fluoridate would be large," Hooton said.

Expensive, too. Although no cost analysis has been done, expectations are that such a project would cost several million dollars.

It would be worth it, Garrett said.

"Dental costs are reduced $80 for every one dollar spent on fluoridation," he said, offering an argument long-endorsed by dentists.

Proof is readily apparent, said Monte Thompson, director of the 1,100-member Utah Dental Association, which has noted that residents of towns such as Brigham City, where public water supplies are fluoridated, have far healthier teeth than most other Utahns.

"Dentists can tell in a second after a child comes in and sits in a dental chair whether that child is from Brigham City," Thompson said.

Other Utah municipalities that fluoridate their water are Cedar City, Logan and Helper, but the state remains one of the least-fluoridated in the country.

The dental association in the 1970s pushed unsuccessfully for widespread water fluoridation in Utah, but the movement was defeated in a public referendum.

By state law, voters must approve water fluoridation. However, Utah has had a longstanding resistance to the idea. In 1965, the Utah State Dental Association said Utah ranked last in the country in the percentage of the population served by fluoridated water.

Dr. Harry Gibbons, the former director of the Salt Lake City-County Health Department, championed the cause in 1972 and estimated the cost then at about $1.6 million to fluoridate Salt Lake County's water.

He described it as the best investment the area could make: "There would be millions of dollars in benefits as well as relieving untold suffering in tooth decay and related dental problems."

Voters defeated a proposal to add fluoride to the Salt Lake County water supplies in a 1972 referendum. Another anti-fluoride initiative won in 1976 after the Utah Board of Health, led by a dentist, pushed to fluoridate water statewide.

The issue aroused powerful emotions in those opposed to the idea of fluoridating water supplies. One speaker at a 1976 public hearing said the Bible warned that in the last days "evil and designing people will tamper with the food and poison the water."

Conservative critics such as the John Birch Society held suspicions that fluoridation stemmed from a plot to create a one-world government and spread socialism, while others argued that fluoride caused cancer, bone disease and kidney trouble.

The American Dental Association for years has disputed such claims, but the anti-fluoride tradition has persisted in one guise or another. Today, the Internet is fertile ground for anti-fluoridation groups, which still zealously condemn the practice.

The dental association has said fluoridation can cut down on cavities by 40 percent in most communities, and a scientific committee of the National Research Council endorsed it in 1993, finding no credible evidence that fluoride poses serious health risks. Pediatricians routinely prescribe fluoride pills or drops for youngsters.

David Ovard, general manager of the Salt Lake Water Conservancy District, Utah's largest culinary-water wholesaler, said opposition to the current movement is likely to surface.

"We have people who don't want even chlorine in their water," he said, noting that chemical is used anyway to purify public-water systems around the world.



Yes to fluoridation

Do you favor or oppose fluoridation of public drinking water to promote dental health?

Strongly favor: 39%

Somewhat favor: 31%

Somewhat oppose: 10%

Strongly oppose: 15%

Don't know: 5%

Dan Jones & Associates Poll conducted June 19-28 for the Salt Lake City Public Utilities Department. Survey of 705 adults within the department's water-service area, two-thirds in Salt Lake City, the remainder in unincorporated Salt Lake County. Margin of error of +/- 3.7 percent.