By GAIL PARSONS
An employee safety issue was at the center of a decision to stop putting fluoride in Abilene’s water, in April.
City Manager David Dillner said the emergency safety switch in the fluoride room at the water treatment plant has become corroded making it nonfunctional. If a problem were to arise while an employee is preparing the fluoride, the employee would use that switch to alert other plant workers that they were in distress or that there was a problem.
“From our stand point we look at is as an employee safety issue,” he said.
The corrosion has been a slow steady occurrence since the plant opened in 1998. The Abilene City Council will need to determine if they want to authorize the room to be cleaned and the corroded switch replaced, or discontinue the fluoridation program.
Although a full assessment has not been complete, Dillner said it will cost several thousand dollars to completely fix the problems and thoroughly clean the room. The funds would come from the water utility revenues, not city tax dollars.
“We can probably do it for less than under $10, 000,” he said.
Jay Leusman, lead operator at the Abilene Water Treatment Plant, said the work that needs to be done to bring the room up to code includes replacing the emergency switch; replacing some wiring; work on the exhaust system; and lights.
If they stopped the fluorination it would be a savings of about $5,000 a year, Dillner said. That would be a savings that Mike Robson, DDS said would not be worth the money for local residents, especially the children.
He has had a dental practice in Abilene for 32 years and saw firsthand what he described as a significant improvement in the dental health of his patients after the fluoride started being put into the water.
“I would hate to see the water not be fluoridated,” he said. “I would sure like to see that (switch) repaired so we can get that back in the water.”
Over the past 15 years, since Abilene has been fluoridating the water, he said there has been a noticeable decrease in the number of children with cavities. He recalled that in the 1960s Salina became one of the first cities in Kansas to start putting fluoride in their water. When he started his practice he had some patients from Salina and saw the difference in the dental health.
“They wouldn’t have the decay (the Abilene children did),” he said.
Until the city resumes its fluoride program, Robson recommends parents ensure their children are brushing their teeth with toothpaste that has fluoride or use a fluoride rinse.
Not everyone will agree that fluoride it necessary or even safe. Its use has been protested in Kansas and around the nation. In November, Wichita voters rejected a fluoride initiative sponsored by that city’s dentists and doctors, the initiative failed with 59 percent voting no.
In January, the Kansas Republican Assembly sent the city of Topeka a letter requesting that the city cease the fluoridation during the legislative session because of a concern they had based on a meta-analysis from the Harvard School of Public Health using primarily studies out of China that “confirmed that fluoride in drinking water lowers IQ in children and that adults may also be at risk,” according to the letter.
A study summary posted online at the Harvard School of Public Health web site clarified that the researchers conducted a systematic review of studies, almost all of which are from China where fluoride is a naturally occurring substance in groundwater, and exposures to the chemical are increased in some parts of China.
That is a much different scenario than what U.S. cities face when they put small amounts of fluoride into the water.
Robson was quick to note that there have been “gazillions of studies on fluoride and they have found no correlation between IQ (and fluoride use).”
Dillner said much of the fear, especially in the early years of fluoridation came from a concern for public safety.
“The concern started in the 1950 and 60s when it was linked to a communist takeover plot. It was a big deal at that time; they thought it was being putting in the water to harm American public health,” he said.