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ITHACA, N.Y. — Adding fluoride to the water supply has been a hotly debated, and at times confusing, topic in Ithaca for more than 50 years. “I’ve been here since 1971 and this has always been an issue,” said Marcia Lynch, Tompkins County’s public information officer.

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Below are answers to common questions about fluoridation in Ithaca.

(Click on the question to see the answer. Did we miss your question? If so email me at nbogel@ithacavoice.com.)

1 — Is Ithaca’s water fluoridated? Has it ever been?
2 — Is Ithaca unusual in not fluoridating its water?
3 — Have there been efforts to fluoridate Ithaca’s water supply?
4 — What are the arguments FOR fluoridation?
5 — What are the arguments AGAINST fluoridation?
6 — Is Ithaca likely to begin fluoridation any time soon?

1 — Is Ithaca’s water fluoridated? Has it ever been?

The tap water in Ithaca is not fluoridated and never has been.

Section 35 of the Ithaca Charter says that Common Council “…shall not enact or enforce any local law or ordinance or resolution for any purpose pertaining in any manner to the fluoridation of the water.”

2 — Is Ithaca unusual in not fluoridating its water?

The majority of Americans do receive fluoridated water from their community water systems (66.2% of the US population in 2010), but the figures vary widely by state.

In New York, 77.4 percent of people receiving water from public systems get fluoridated water, compared to 99.3 percent in Illinois and 13.5 percent in New Jersey.

3 — Have there been efforts to fluoridate Ithaca’s water supply?

Yes, many. According to Ithaca’s city clerk, Julie Holcomb, the topic of fluoridation “raises its head every 20 or 30 years.” Most recently, the City of Ithaca held a vote on two propositions in 2000, both of which failed to pass.

The first, which would have simply allowed Common Council to write laws pertaining to fluoridation, was voted down by 52 percent of Ithacans. The second, which was a vote on actually fluoridating the water (and would have required the first proposition to pass), was opposed by 54 percent.

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The vote against fluoridation followed a poll by a research class at Cornell that found that the majority of Ithacans were in favor of the idea just weeks before the vote.

John Gutenberger, mayor of Ithaca from 1984 to 1990, said the unexpected results may have been because the anti-fluoridation movement was much more vocal than advocates of the measure.

“Those that really have a passion for an issue are going to show up and vote, and those who don’t really have a strong opinion may stay home,” said Gutenberger.

Gutenberger remembers times in Ithaca where the debate over fluoride became “very heated, very emotional. People were afraid that fluoride was a poison.”

He said that in the ‘70s and ‘80s, some Ithacans were afraid that fluoridation could have a domino effect, leading to the government putting other things, namely birth control, in the water.

Former Ithaca Mayor John Gutenberger

4 — What are the arguments FOR fluoridation?

Many prominent organizations, including the American Dental Association and the Center for Disease Control, have campaigned for fluoridating water supplies.

Recently, the CDC recommended that fluoride levels be reduced slightly, largely due to the fact that many foods are produced using fluoride already.

“The new recommendation is in no way a statement of concern about fluoride,” said Dr. William Klepack, who is the medical director of the Tompkins County Health Department. The only adverse effect the CDC noted was fluorosis, a splotchy whitening of the teeth due to excessive fluoride levels that is solely cosmetic.

Klepack said that the scientific community is largely in support of fluoridation, and that the decision in Ithaca is politically motivated: “There are always a lot of fears that are brought up about alleged effects of fluoride, but the scientific literature does not support those fears.”

He said it is time for Ithaca to revisit the proposal. Since the vote in 2000, Klepack said, “there has been no info to say that fluoride is anything less than a safe and effective method of improving dental health.”

5 — What are the arguments AGAINST fluoridation?

“It is an incredibly stupid practice, and it gets more stupid every day,” said Dr. Paul Connett, the executive director of the Fluoride Action Network, an anti-fluoridation group that calls fluoride a toxin.

Among the FAN’s many concerns is that delivering a medication through a water supply makes controlling the dose difficult. “All other chemicals we add to water are for treating the water,” said Connett. “Fluoride is the only thing we put in the water to use the water supply as a vehicle to deliver medication.”

Connett also noted that most governments do not require informed consent to treat local water supplies, which makes it difficult for lower-income people to avoid fluoride. Whereas those who are better off can buy filters or bottled water, poorer people may not be able to do so once their local government makes the decision to fluoridate.

Connett said that there is nothing in the human body that requires fluoride and that there are 44 studies that link fluoride to lower IQ levels.

“This is an Anglo-American con job. These people are too proud to admit they’ve made a huge, terrible mistake,” Connett said, referring to the scientists who have recommended fluoridating water supplies.

Erik Whitney, who is the assistant superintendent of the water and sewer program in Ithaca, said, “From the water department’s standpoint, most of the water is not used as drinking water. Most is used to wash lawns, wash streets, wash laundry. It seems like a waste.”

As for a solution, Connett asked, “Why not just brush [with fluoride] and spit it out? Then you don’t force it on people.”

6 — Is Ithaca likely to begin fluoridation any time soon?

Whitney, who works in the water and sewer division of the Department of Public Works, said that while the implementation of fluoride would be cheap, he has never been asked to research the idea.

“I really doubt we’ll ever be doing it,” he said.

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Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs

Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs is an intern with the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at nbogel@ithacavoice.com.