What's in the Water?


Sunday, June 16, 2002

Even the Davis County residents who voted for water fluoridation two years ago should be happy that opponents are close to forcing the issue back onto the ballot this fall. The additive most people assumed they would be getting -- the pharmaceutical-grade sodium fluoride found in toothpaste, pills and dental treatments -- is not the stuff flowing from taps today in the county's southern end. Instead, the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District took a more economical path and bought fluorosilicic acid.

Those who had visions of sterile white laboratories when they voted for fluoride weren't thinking of fluorosilicic acid. Improbable as this sounds, much of it is recovered from the scrubbing solution that scours toxins from smokestacks at phosphate fertilizer plants. Water fluoridation has turned a tremendous hazardous-waste disposal expense into a multimillion-dollar profit for fertilizer manufacturers.

Now stop and think about the nonsensical mechanics of that scheme for a moment: The Environmental Protection Agency wouldn't allow a bucket of this stuff to be poured directly into the Great Salt Lake, yet many tons will flow there in coming years via Davis County wastewater alone. As long as some of it passes through people first, the EPA rules against dumping waste are suspended.

The amount that reaches your water tap is relatively small, about about 1 part per million (ppm), yet it's worth noting that the EPA's limit for lead in the water is only 0.015 ppm -- and lead is less toxic than fluorosilicic acid. Arsenic is only a few times more toxic, yet its EPA water limit is about 400 times smaller than the acid's. Fluoridation proponents call such comparisons irrelevant because they say the acid has been used for years with no proven ill effects. But they can't provide more than this anecdotal assurance because fluorosilicic acid -- unlike the fluoride in your toothpaste -- has never been subject to serious toxicological study by the government. The EPA's ranking chemist confirmed that mind-boggling oversight to The Tribune last week.

The private sector, on the other hand, has stepped up in recent years to fill the scientific void. A 1999 Dartmouth College study -- linking fluorosilicic acid to high uptakes of lead in children -- is one of several that have raised red flags about the acid. The few public health officials who are even aware of this research are quick to dismiss it, but at the very least the study authors have attempted to apply some scientific method to the question of the acid's safety. Lacking valid research to support their own position on fluorosilicic acid, the best that the public health politicos can do is tell you, "Other cities have been using it for years." That, folks, is not science.

If you voted for lab-tested fluoride and not some factory's toxic swill, you should thank opponents for hanging with this issue and giving you another chance to choose.