Politics & Government

Kentucky lawmakers want to end mandatory fluoride in tap water. Dentists disagree.

State Rep. Mark Hart, R-Falmouth.
State Rep. Mark Hart, R-Falmouth. LRC Public Information

Arguing against government overreach, two Kentucky lawmakers are sponsoring legislation that would let local communities stop fluoridating their drinking water.

Today, nearly every glass of Kentucky tap water contains trace amounts of fluoride, a mineral added for the past seven decades to reduce tooth decay. The state requires any public water system that serves 1,500 or more people to fluoridate its supply. Only a handful of Kentucky’s 423 public water systems can and do opt out.

To state Sen. Steve West and state Rep. Mark Hart, both Republican, that’s troubling. The lawmakers say they have seen research linking excessive fluoride consumption to health problems. If the substance doesn’t need to be in water for purification, then why should the state force local communities to add it, and at their own expense, they asked in interviews Monday.

“We both campaigned on less government and stuff, and this goes along with that,” said Hart, R-Falmouth. “I see this as an unfunded mandate for local governments. Let the people drinking the water decide what goes into their water.”

The Kentucky Dental Association opposes the bills that West and Hart have filed for the 2019 legislative session, which started Tuesday. Kentucky long has struggled with some of the nation’s highest rates of tooth decay and loss, especially in the poor counties of Eastern Kentucky.

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“Dentists in Kentucky already have more than enough business. We don’t need to make things worse,” said Rick Whitehouse, the group’s executive director. “There’s 70 years of scientific data to demonstrate that fluoridation is not only safe, it’s effective.”

Maysville became the first Kentucky city to fluoridate its drinking water in 1951 just as the practice was catching on nationally, according to the Kentucky Oral Health Program, which promotes fluoridation. Public health experts credit fluoride in tap water with strengthening tooth enamel and reducing decay, particularly in small children whose teeth are emerging.

While it’s true that excessive fluoride consumption can discolor teeth and eventually weaken bones, public health experts say, the federal government only allows trace amount in drinking water, currently recommending a concentration of 0.7 milligrams per liter. The most recent water quality report from Kentucky American Water in Lexington showed its fluoride levels to be in compliance.

However, drinking water fluoridation has been controversial in some quarters since it began. In recent years, advocacy groups such as the Fluoride Action Network have attempted to link fluoridation to cancer, thyroid problems and lowered intelligence in children. Federal health researchers have studied those claims and not been able to substantiate them.

“I’ve been practicing since 1989, and it has always been a concern with some people, just the same as vaccinations are,” said Dr. Teresa Lyon, an assistant professor of dentistry at the University of Kentucky. “What you have to remember is that the amount of fluoride placed in your drinking water is very small. You’re not drinking a cup of it.”

The bills that West and Hart are sponsoring originated in Harrison County with one of their constituents, Cindi Batson, a nurse and mother of three.

In an interview Monday, Batson said she started to have health concerns about her family drinking fluoride — “call it hydrofluorosilicic acid, which is it’s proper name,” she added — but local officials told her they were powerless to drop it from the water supply. When she called state officials in Frankfort, they agreed that public drinking water must have fluoride. Case closed.

“As it stands now, a concerned citizen in Kentucky can’t even start a conversation with her neighbors about whether or not this benefits us because, under the law, we are required to do it,” Batson said. “If we had a choice in this, some cities might choose to continue with it. Some cities might choose to stop.”

The Kentucky Dental Association fears what would happen if communities started to remove fluoride from their water, especially if those areas overlapped with places that have high rates of poverty, poor diet, infrequent dental care and other contributors to bad oral health, Whitehouse said.

There are plenty of Kentucky children who drink more sugary soda than tap water, Whitehouse said.

“We’ve got a lot of folks around this commonwealth who have not ever seen a toothbrush, and I’m not even kidding about that,” he said. “(Drinking water fluoridation) is not going to solve this problem by itself — we have a lot of other problems in this state — but it holds back the severity of it. I think we’d be even worse off without it.”

On the other hand, West, the state senator behind one of the bills, said it might be time to reconsider the impact of fluoride.

“There’s a lot of talk about natural health these days and what are the substances that are compromising our immune systems,” said West, R-Paris. “Pesticides. Insecticides. Stuff that isn’t necessarily a problem if you ingest it five times but possibly is if you ingest it 5,000 times.”

“Many of the things we’re putting into our systems are deadly chemicals in large quantities,” he said, “and from a public health perspective, I think it’s time we took a hard look at them, even if they were sold to us as miracles back in the 1950s.”

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