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Iowa City to Discuss Merits of Water Fluoridation

IOWA CITY - The movie "Dr. Strangelove" lampooned the belief that water fluoridation was a communist plot, but opposition to the practice is real.

The Iowa City Council will take up the matter at a work session Monday after several people earlier this year expressed concerns about the city's long-standing policy of adding fluoride to the public water supply.

Opponents say water fluoridation may be unsafe, is an unnecessary cost for the city and it's unethical to in effect force people to ingest it.

Mark Amberg, who told the council that he works in the radiology department at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Iowa City, called fluoride a "toxic substance."

"You are now responsible for the policy of mass-medicating almost 64,000 (people) in our town without their consent," he told the council.

Public health experts, however, tout the benefits and safety of water fluoridation.

"It's probably one of the most studied and researched materials on the market, and there just has been no conclusive evidence that fluoridation at the optimal level causes any harm," said Dr. Bob Russell, public health dental director for the Iowa Department of Public Health.

Fluoride is a mineral that naturally occurs in most waters and prevents tooth decay by protecting tooth enamel, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Communities began adding small amounts of fluoride to public water systems 65 years ago, and the results were so great that the CDC named water fluoridation one of the 10 greatest health achievements of the 20th century.

Russell said Iowa is a leader in water fluoridation, with about 92 percent of all municipalities adding fluoride to their public water supply. Water fluoridation has occurred in Iowa City since 1953, according to Ed Moreno, the city's water superintendent.

Douglas Beardsley, Johnson County's public health director, wrote in a letter to the city that fluoridation is especially beneficial to lower-income people, who generally have less access to comprehensive dental care.

Iowa City spends about 29 cents per customer annually to add fluoride to the water, Moreno said. A CDC study found that, in communities of more than 20,000 people, every $1 invested in fluoridation yields about $38 in savings on dental costs.

But controversy surrounding the practice remains. The Fluoride Action Network says more than 2,700 professionals, including dentists, have signed a statement expressing concern about the effect of fluoridation, particularly on small children "being overdosed with fluoride."

Jeff Shipley, the UI Student Government liaison to the City Council, said the city needs to make sure that it's providing safe water to the public.

"I'd rather have pure water than water that is laced with this," he said.

And some people argue that there are now other ways to get fluoride, like certain toothpastes and dental treatments.

But Dr. Steven Levy of the UI dental school, who has researched fluoridation for 25 years and has found it to be a boon to public health, said it's true that the benefit rates of fluoridation are not as high now as they were several decades ago, but they are still substantial. He also noted that not everyone can afford those other treatments.

"We forget that not everyone has as good of access to dental care or toothpaste or toothbrushes or mouth rinses as the majority of us," he said.

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