The Anchorage Assembly broke the general fall-asleep-in-your-laptop mold last Tuesday night when it tackled a growing nuisance with an impressive bit of performance art.
For years, a small group of activists have been pushing city officials to remove the fluoride from Anchorage’s water supply. A smaller few have used public testimony as a personal venue to repeatedly parrot debunked claims of health risks. The resulting circus side show is not a legitimate use of the democratic process, it’s an abuse of it. And the tone has unarguably crossed the threshold from persistent to belligerent. The Assembly meets to conduct the city’s business, not entertain the same long-debunked conspiracy theories night after night.
It seems the Assembly decided that enough was enough. Assemblyman Patrick Flynn, with cosponsors Assemblymen Adam Trombley and Chris Birch, introduced Anchorage Resolution 230, which sought to do four things: officially acknowledge the opponents of water fluoridation, reject their arguments, endorse the use of fluoride in the city’s water, and exhaust the assembly as the vehicle to object. If opponents continued to object, they were instructed to “consider the ballot initiative process.”
The condescending tone of AR230 established a clear vibe: We’ve placated you enough. Take your crazy elsewhere.
The text elicits the same feeling one gets when told “your call is important to us,” and the audio book version would be read by John Cleese after a third glass of wine.
This was poetry, fine-tuned to Tuesday night’s audience.
The more rational among us recognize that a public hearing is more than a three-minute chance to be angry. It’s a chance to influence the outcome of a political decision. Most Assembly members come to the table with their minds made up, but can occasionally be swayed by a convincing argument.
The less rational just want everyone to know how angry they are.
This is the approach chosen by Fluoride Free Alaska member Daryl Lanzon. It’s his right, but it’s not the most constructive strategy.
When Lanzon read the part asserting that “members have also had the opportunity to review other information as well as conduct communications with subject matter experts,” he opened the night’s testimony and inadvertently set up the entire argument supporting the Assembly’s case:
When does the public get to see this information? Where did this information come from? What was the review process for this information and the criteria for this information? Due diligence. These are legitimate questions that need to be answered. What was the subject matter experts..? Who are these subject matter experts?
To his displeasure, the Assembly doesn’t need to CC every resident who yells at them when they seek outside counsel.
But, Lanzon would get to meet the mysterious “experts.” In fact, over a century of experience on the topic was lined up behind him.
The first was Dr. Terry Tauschek, a 40-year Anchorage resident, practicing dentist, and member of the Alaska Waste Water Utilities (AWWU) board of directors. He was there to speak in support of the resolution, noting that fluoride had been in use in Anchorage since 1953:
[Fluoridated water] does not discriminate based on economic resources. Anybody who drinks the public water system can benefit by it. In my opinion, after 49 years of clinical practice, is that public fluoride in the water system is more effective than topically applied fluoride on teeth and it imparts a lifetime resistance to dental decay.
Tauschek also highlighted the economic benefits. Fluoridation costs AWWU $80,000 annually, including labor costs, working out to $.33 per person, per year. “According to a very conservative figure from the American Dental Association, the return on that investment is about 38 to 1,” he said, finding that for every dollar Anchorage spends on fluoridation, the city saves over $3 million.
He had never seen any medical issues related to fluoridated water in his four decades in practice.
Behind Tauschek was Dr. Joseph McLaughlin, the state epidemiologist with the Alaska Division of Public Health. He expressed the division’s support for fluoridation for the resolution, stating that the treatment reduces dental decay by over 25 percent in children and adults, and was perfectly safe at appropriate levels: “Water fluoridation has been used in the United States for more than 65 years. Hundreds of studies have looked for adverse health effects of water fluoridation on the public’s health, and no adverse health effects have been demonstrated.”
After McLaughlin was Nicki Bennett, the president of the Alaska State Dental Hygienists Association, for whom she spoke for. Another dentist followed her. That night we would also hear from Tom Hennessy, a physician working for the United States Center for Disease Control (CDC), Alison Kulas, speaking for the Alaska Public Health Association, and John Laux, the vice-chair of the Anchorage health and human services advisory commission.
As one fluoride opponent summed up: “We have a lot of alphabet agencies that we hear one person say this person said that, this one said that. There’s two sides to absolutely every story.”
Those alphabet agencies also are comprised of people who’s education, training, field research, and entire professional lives revolve around the same topics their detractors claim a monopoly of knowledge over after a single mouse click. Having two sides shouldn’t automatically substantiate parity.
The Assembly would hear opposition to the fluoridation program from a woman in a flag t-shirt who was against “the fluoride” because it was “rat poison.” Perennial candidate Phil Isley also chimed in. Two dozen Anchorage residents with heavy criticisms of fluoride despite no professional or functional literacy pertaining to the subject called the mineral “toxic waste” and objected to being “medicated.” The depth of knowledge on display was limited to “I read it on the internet,” “I saw it on youtube,” and “I have a cavity.”
In her testimony, Alaska State Dental Hygienists Association President Nicki Bennet pleaded with those opposing fluoridation:
So often, when people come up with a systemic illness that there’s no explanation for – especially if it’s an autoimmune disorder – they’re looking for a reason. We’re a society right now that likes to find a cause…. If you follow the science, not the emotion, you’ll find out that there are no proven scientific health effects from water fluoridation, other than skeletal fluorosis. In the normal low dose that we have in Anchorage, and that’s recommended by the CDC, there are no negative health effects.
In the end, the Assembly passed the resolution by a 9-2 vote, with members Elvi Gray-Jackson and Paul Honeman dissenting. The dissent wasn’t necessarily a rebuke of water fluoridation, but more a reflection of the opinion that the Assembly needn’t be on record supporting or opposing the program.
The majority determined that the evidence cited, supporting the case against fluoridation, didn’t stand up to scrutiny. Opponents didn’t have standing.
If the anti-fluoride group has objections, the argument will have to get stronger and smarter. Questioning the government, or the “alphabet agencies,” is healthy. But arguing that fluoridation causes mental deficiencies and cancer, or is a Nazi-invented opiate of the masses, moves well beyond healthy skepticism. It’s a fanatical, fetishistic rejection of government, science, and expert knowledge.
Putting your own armchair medical assumption on a pedestal above the conclusive findings of physicians, health experts, and scientists is as arrogant as it is warped. Believe your doctor before your internet browser. And, for now, take your 25 people and try your luck with a ballot initiative, or come back with something better to say.
And use your inside voice.