Some in Michigan hoping to change minds about drinking water and fluoridation


Margherita Fontana heads the University of Michigan’s Global Initiatives Program in Oral and Craniofacial Health. Image: University of Michigan

By Theo Scheer

It takes two to three hours for Kevin Villalta to filter and distill a gallon of tap water, and he says the process is as expensive as it is time-consuming.

But it’s worth it, said the Lansing environmental engineer, who works for the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

A couple of months ago, Villalta moved from Texas to the very state that launched the nationwide practice he refuses to participate in: water fluoridation.

“Sometimes you can’t avoid it — for example, restaurants and soft drinks, etc.,” Villalta said. “But I try to.”

Villalta doesn’t work in water fluoridation and said his personal views don’t reflect the department’s views.

In 1945, Grand Rapids became the first city in the world to add fluoride – a form of the naturally occurring element fluorine – to its water supply. The city immediately began seeing improvements in residents’ dental health.

This statue commemorates the status of Grand Rapids as the first city to fluoridate its drinking water. Image: Grand Rapids Historical Commission

Since then, more and more communities across the world have added fluoride to their water supply.

As of 2020, 89.3% of Michigan’s population was served by community water systems that have fluoridated water, according to the United Health Foundation.

Among those that don’t fluoridate are Cadillac, Gladwin, Oxford, Three Rivers, Iron Mountain and Saugatuck, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC.

Some of the Michigan community systems that don’t fluoridate their water. Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – My Water’s Fluoride

While public health officials have long-boasted of fluoride’s benefits — downtown Grand Rapids has a statue and plaque commemorating the achievement — the chemical has been the source of debate for decades.

Proponents say medical evidence shows that fluoridation is the best measure a community can take to prevent tooth decay and improve oral health.

But a lawsuit in federal court in California has reinvigorated concerns over fluoride’s effects.

Villata said, “I began to read about the history, the pros and cons of fluoridation. I became aware of the lawsuit and decided to start following it.”

The Fluoride Action Network, or FAN, first sued the Environmental Protection Agency in 2017, seeking to end fluoridation altogether. The second and final phase of the nonjury trial started Jan. 31, and anti-fluoride activists expect a final ruling soon.

“This reinvigoration, continuation of the lawsuit has definitely attracted a lot of attention,” said Stuart Cooper, the executive director of the fluoride opposition group. “We’ve been having over 40,000 views on our website daily now over the past week.”

The California trial focuses on a 2022 National Toxicology Program report that provides an overview of fluoride’s neurotoxicity, based on multiple studies. It found, at a “moderate confidence” level, that drinking water containing high levels of fluoride is “consistently

associated with lower IQ in children.”

The program is run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

FAN argues that the finding is the reason to get rid of fluoride altogether.

Some Michigan residents agree.

Valerie Olson, the owner of the Wellness Center of Marquette, says she’s been telling city commissioners about fluoride’s harmful effects for years. She says that a ruling against fluoride will help spur action.

So far, commissioners haven’t been receptive to her pleas, she said.

“See, everybody’s a follower,” Olsen said. “The commissioners don’t want to make waves. They don’t want to ruffle the feathers of the dentists.”

Olson and Cooper express no doubts that the judge will rule in FAN’s favor.

“We’re all feeling very confident,” Cooper said. “The science is on our side.”

But Margherita Fontana, the director of the Global Initiatives Program in Oral and Craniofacial Health at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry, disagrees.

She says findings from the National Toxicology Program report show the effects of fluoride at levels double that used in community water fluoridation in the United States.

The levels currently allowed have “always been shown to be safe,” she said.

“Existing data on communities that have stopped fluoridation show an increased caries prevalence,” Fontana said, referring to an increase in dental decay. “When weighing benefits and risks, every health organization clearly supports this important public health method.”

Villalta says that isn’t enough.

“Whenever there’s a risk, there must be a choice,” he said.

Fluoride levels vary across Michigan, with some surpassing the levels the report says has negative side effects, according to CDC data.

Among them are Petoskey, Akron in Tuscola County and Brown City in Lapeer and Sanilac counties, the CDC data shows.

Theo Scheer reports for Capital News Service

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