No. 4 News Story of the Year: The furious fight against fluoride: State mandates rile opponents, may be on hold now
EUREKA SPRINGS -- One of the biggest issues countywide in 2012 was the state-mandated fluoridation of the drinking water supply, and the issue comes at No. 4 on our Top Ten list of news stories for the year.
While Carroll-Boone Water District's water is not yet fluoridated, questions remain over whether it will be, as funding has been put on hold, and bills may be introduced in 2013 putting strictures on fluoride products.
For Carroll County, the issue goes back well before 2012.
CBWD was established to provide drinking water to its four member cities of Eureka Springs, Berryville, Green Forest and Harrison in Boone County. The CBWD plant in rural Eureka Springs draws water from Beaver Lake, chlorinates it and pipes it to the cities and their subsidiaries. On two separate occasions in the past, the city councils of all the member cities except Eureka Springs voted to fluoridate the water. Eureka Springs turned the matter over to its citizens for a vote, and both times they turned it down, which vetoed it for the other member cities as well because such policy changes must be unanimous.
The late Jim Allison, CBWD office manager, wrote a letter in 2005 to a state senate committee after the House passed legislation to fluoridate water "under a cloak of secrecy," he said. He said he and the water operators had begun to research fluoride after the two Eureka votes to defeat it and "became disturbed by the information we were finding," citing the potential harm to customers and operators in handling and consuming "a poison more toxic than lead and just slightly less toxic than arsenic, made from industrial waste."
The CBWD water operators, who acted on their own and not as representatives of the CBWD board, testified in Little Rock against fluoride. At that time, the measure failed.
Meanwhile, serious questions began to be raised about the dangers of fluoride for some populations. In 2008, the National Kidney Foundation advised that dialysis patients be warned about the risks of using fluoridated water in dialysis. The Centers for Disease Control recommended that fluoride content of water be adjusted to reduce it from the range of .7 to 1.2 mg/l to just .7 mg/l over concerns about dental fluorosis in children.
Other challenges to the safety of fluoride came in the form of studies about bone brittleness in senior citizens, birth defects, stillbirths, early infant mortality, neurotoxicity and concerns about lack of proper labeling of contaminates in the fluoride product, as well as the safety of water operators handing the concentrated product.
Nevertheless, bills were passed by both the state House and Senate, and in 2011, the governor signed Act 197 into law, requiring the fluoridation of the public drinking water supply by any water provider serving 5,000 or more people. CBWD serves 25,000 people.
The bill, however, mandates that startup costs not come from taxes or water fees, but from private companies. Delta Dental stepped forward to say it would pay for fluoridation equipment at all affected water systems in the state.
Meanwhile, Allison was unable to obtain material safety data from suppliers of fluoride products; all 49 suppliers did not reply to his requests for information.
In January 2012, CBWD's consulting engineers, McGoodwin, Williams & Yates, came back with an engineering study showing a preliminary construction cost of $1.23 million to implement fluoridation at both the CBWD treatment plants. Delta Dental offered to pay $763,000. Ongoing annual costs for the fluoride product were estimated to be $20,000.
The engineers said they could probably scale back costs more in line with what Delta Dental was willing to pay and still address the safety concerns of employees and consumers, but would not know what real costs would be until they went out for bid.
In March, State Rep. Bryan King (R-Green Forest), who had voted against mandatory fluoridation, obtained an opinion from the State of Arkansas Bureau of Legislative Research about whether CBWD would be obligated to pay for implementation of fluoridation if grant funds fell short.
"The answer is probably 'No,'" the bureau wrote. "...Unless non-tax, no-fee funds are available for capital startup costs, the water system is not required to carry out any of the requirements of the act."
In June, the Eureka Springs City Council formally adopted Resolution 600, which opposes fluoridation of the city's water supply.
Meanwhile, King began work on a bill requiring full disclosure of fluoride products in their raw state for use in drinking water. The new bill, which he will continue to work on in 2013, will follow a similar bill that died in committee last year.
He said fluoride is a local issue and should be by vote of the people. In an interview in July, he said he became educated about the dangers of fluoride when so many of his constituents urged him to vote against it and when the CBWD operators themselves stood against it.
"When you have water operators who work for Carroll-Boone expressing concerns about it -- and they are the experts -- you give it a lot more attention," he said.
In July Delta Dental then told CBWD it was withdrawing its initial funding proposal and replaced it with a similar proposal, but with a new funding period: May 2013 to October 2014.
Thus, the project is on hold going into the new year.
King is not hopeful that the state legislature will overturn Act 197, as he said seven out of the eight Senate Public Health Committee members voted for it as a bill.
But lack of funding may prevent the project from going forward.
"I do have a problem with the mandate," he admitted. "The Democrats once again pushed a mandate that they don't want to fully fund."
He also had critical words for fellow Republicans, however.
"I have trouble understanding why the Republicans would vote for it. They didn't want health care mandated, and then turn around and mandate fluoride in our drinking water? What's that about?"
In December, Allison, who led the fight against mandatory fluoridation in Carroll County, passed away suddenly. Fellow operators have vowed to continue the fight, both from their own convictions and in his honor.
According to the Fluoride Action Network, to date 64.4 percent of Arkansas public water supplies are fluoridated.