Two years ago, Jessica Thompson and Richard Simms started an online petition to keep fluoride out of the city of Lawrence's water supply. They managed to get nearly 500 signatures and a segment on the local TV news. Nothing came of it.
But Thompson, a cashier, and Simms, a stay-at-home dad, are political novices. Mark Gietzen is not.
Gietzen has been protesting at Wichita abortion clinics and working to advance conservative political causes in the state for decades. Last year, he helped draft an antifluoride bill that his state representative, Steve Brunk of Wichita, introduced into the Legislature. The bill would require municipalities that fluoridate their water to notify citizens that "the latest science confirms that ingested fluoride lowers the IQ in children."
Oral health advocates are fighting back. They say the benefits of fluoride in fighting tooth decay are immeasurable, that the science on the safety of water fluoridation is settled, that cities like Lawrence have been fluoridating their water for decades with no ill effects. Nearly 75 percent of Americans live in communities that add fluoride to their water to help prevent tooth decay, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Still, the legislation is scheduled for a hearing before the House Health and Human Services Committee (it was delayed until Feb. 19 by this week's snowstorm).
Gietzen said fluoride wasn't even on his radar before the city of Wichita held a vote in 2012 on whether it should add the chemical to its water supply (the measure lost). As he got further into the science, he says, he realized that eliminating water fluoridation in America has the potential to save more lives than even outlawing abortion.
"I'm doing the most pro-life work I've ever done with this fluoride fight," he said.
He now blames fluoride for his father's death from cancer and his brother's thyroid problem. He cites a study comparing the incidence of disease in Ireland (which fluoridates its water) and Northern Ireland (which does not) that shows the former to have significantly higher rates of such conditions as early onset dementia, sudden infant death syndrome and hypothyroidism. The claims about lowering IQ, meanwhile, come from a 2012 Harvard study that found a correlation between slower brain development and increased levels of fluoride in water; the research mostly looked at kids in China, which, unlike the U.S., has a high natural occurrence of fluoride in its water.
Kevin Richardson, executive director of the Kansas Dental Association, said antifluoride activists fall into two camps: those who believe it is "an industrial chemical that causes every type of cancer and ailment" or those who think "fluoride is used by government as a mind-control agent."
"Fluoride lowers the incidence of tooth decay — that's a proven fact," Richardson said, noting that the CDC has named water fluoridation one of the top 10 public health achievements of the 21st century.
"Fluoride in the water saves the Medicaid system a lot of money," asserted Julie Branstrom, executive director of the Douglas County Dental Clinic. "Over the long haul the cost of putting fluoride in the water is far less than treating tooth decay."
Lawrence dentist James Otten says that in 30 years of practicing dentistry he's observed that patients who grew up in places with fluoridated water generally have less tooth decay than those who didn't. "It has the most effect on developing teeth in children, as they're growing, from about age 3 to about age 12," he said. "Starting kids off with good enamel and better resistance to disease really has a profound effect on their entire lifetime."
According to the most recent data from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, 36 percent of students in Douglas County had been treated for tooth decay, compared with 44 percent in Sedgwick County (home to Wichita). Sedgwick County also had a slightly higher rate of students with untreated decay (16 percent to 15 percent).
One of the world's most active opponents of water fluoridation lived right here in Lawrence. But Albert Burgstahler, a professor emeritus of chemistry at Kansas University and editor and chief of the scientific journal Fluoride, died Oct. 18. He was 85.
He became concerned about fluoride after moving to Lawrence as a young professor at KU and developing a thyroid condition. When he started distilling his water, he asserted, his health improved. He spent the remainder of his years researching fluoridation and what he claimed to be its ill effects on public health.
Burgstahler gave credibility to the antifluoridation side, said his friend, Paul Finney, a Humboldt acupuncturist who called Burgstahler "one of the most honest people I've known in my life." Finney says public health officials support water fluoridation "because they believe what they were taught in school and they don't bother to read the science. As Professor Burgstahler would say over and over is, 'Why don't people read?!' and then he would pound on the table with his fists."
The House Health and Human Services Committee will ultimately decide whether the bill proceeds, but Finney and other antifluoride advocates don't appear to be giving up on the cause anytime soon.
Back in Lawrence, Thompson and Simms are glad to see others are taking this issue on. The married couple say they no longer drink the city tap water because they believe it was causing them health problems (they self-diagnosed the cause as fluoride poisoning after researching it on the Internet, they say). So what do the two consume in place of tap water?
"We've got a 9-month-old, so right now we're drinking a lot of caffeine," Thompson joked.