Water utility board members voted 5-2 Wednesday to approve a $250,000 appropriation that will allow the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority to buy the equipment needed to resume supplemental drinking-water fluoridation, which the utility halted in 2011.
The decision followed nearly an hour of passionate pleas by both opponents and supporters of fluoridation similar to comments expressed at two earlier public hearings on the issue.
“At the end of the day, when there’s a question about science, we need to listen to the scientists,” board member and Albuquerque City Councilor Pat Davis said before he voted in favor of resuming fluoridation. Davis withdrew his proposal for an advisory question on the 2018 general election ballot that would have asked Bernalillo County voters whether they support or oppose supplemental fluoridation.
Voting against the appropriation were Albuquerque Councilors Klarissa Peña and Trudy Jones. Joining Davis in support were Bernalillo County Commissioners Debbie O’Malley, Wayne Johnson and Maggie Hart Stebbins and Albuquerque’s Chief Administrative Officer Rob Perry, who represents Mayor Richard Berry on the board.
“I’m just philosophically opposed to this,” Jones said in explaining her opposition to fluoridation. “I don’t think at any time the government should add something to our water if some people don’t want it.”
Jones’ remarks echoed those of several opponents who told the board that people who want fluoride can obtain it from commercial products such as toothpaste and mouthwash and from fluoride treatments provided by dentists, but the water utility shouldn’t force fluoride on people who believe they are harmed by it.
“There are health concerns that people talked about,” Peña said. “For people with kidney disease there’s a lot of concern about fluoride.”
Peña also said she was troubled that supporters pitch drinking water fluoridation as a way of helping low-income children. “To me it’s an assumption that lower-income children don’t brush their teeth,” she said.
The measure approved Wednesday requires the utility to maintain fluoride levels between 0.65 and 0.72 milligrams per liter in the public water supply.
Fluoride is a mineral found naturally in Albuquerque’s water supply at levels of about 0.4 to 0.5 milligram per liter, according to a report prepared by the utility staff.
The city began supplemental fluoridation in 1972, but ended the practice in 2011 while federal officials considered new recommendations about fluoridation levels.
In 2015, the U.S. Public Health Service updated the federal drinking water standards, recommending that community water systems add fluoride to 0.7 milligrams per liter to prevent tooth decay. That recommendation prompted the utility to reconsider fluoridation during budget discussions earlier this year.
Opponents cite a variety of concerns, from health problems to human rights concerns. One speaker said fluoridation aggravates her thyroid problems.
Supporters champion water fluoridation as a public-health measure to prevent tooth decay. The American Dental Association calls community water fluoridation “the single most effective public health measure to prevent tooth decay.”
“We have had 70 years of fluoridation without any health effects,” Rudy Blea, the New Mexico Department of Health’s director of oral health told the board. “Providing fluoridated water to your customers is good public health policy.”
Utility officials estimate they can resume supplemental fluoridation in six to eight months.