By Dean Close
One of the funniest government stories I have ever encountered starts with one of the most boring statements ever made about a government policy: The city of Vinton adds fluoride to its water. It has for years. It always will.
Vinton, like just about every other city, has put fluoride in its water for decades, as an effort to help fight tooth decay.
So, you can imagine the surprise that City Manager Chris Ward must have felt when he got a phone call from an official health agency demanding to know why Vinton is NOT putting fluoride in its water.
Then he got another call. And then some emails. And then more phone calls.
In fact, within a week or so, nearly 20 people from Vinton to Washington, D.C., were calling or emailing to ask Ward why Vinton had stopped adding fluoride to its water.
(Again, I remind you of the statement in the first two sentences of this story.)
Ward, who has a great sense of humor for a government guy, managed to laugh as he explained, after a recent council meeting, the process by which he explained to the Centers for Disease Control, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources – and even his own personal dentist – that yes, the City of Vinton continues to put fluoride in its water supply.
It all started innocuously enough, with a regularly-scheduled visit to the Vinton water treatment plant from the Iowa DNR.
One of the DNR inspectors – a man who “shall remain nameless,” says Ward – asked why Vinton is adding fluoride to its water, which already has high levels of naturally-occuring fluoride.
In fact, a recent test shows that water entering the treatment plant has .59 parts per million of fluoride – close to the .7 parts per million that is currently recommended for city water supplies.
Ward said that increasing the level by .11 parts per million basically requires adding “an eye-dropper full” of hydrofluorosilicate, or fluorosilicic acid (FSA).
But somehow – Ward does not know for sure how – the question from that unnamed DNR inspector got twisted into a report that the city was no longer adding fluoride. Soon the inaccurate information reached watchdog groups and government agencies – all of the whom had something to say – or to ask – the city manager.
The Iowa Dental Association (IDA) contacted an adjunct professor at the U of Iowa Department of Family Dentistry – Vinton dentist Sara Stuefen –and asked her to contact City Hall.
“My dentist called me,” Ward said after the first city council meeting in June.
“I have a teeth cleaning with her at the end of the month, and I hope she doesn’t take it out on me,” he joked.
"I really do give kudos to Chris. He was transparent with evertything, didn't try to hide anything (not that there was anything to hide) and took action right away."
Stuefen described Ward's response to the situation and queries as "very impressive."
As a member of the IDA, Stuefen also received many calls about the issue, which she described as a "huge miscommunication."
"I think Chris handled the situation very well," she said, adding a comment that indicates her sense of humore as well: "Chris knows I don't mess around with fluoride!"
The American Dental Association has this to say about fluoride:
"More than 70 years of scientific research has consistently shown that an optimal level of fluoride in community water is safe and effective in preventing tooth decay by at least 25% in both children and adults. Simply by drinking water, Americans can benefit from fluoride's cavity protection whether they are at home, work or school. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention named community water fluoridation one of 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century."
Like virtually all dentists, Stuefen can cite many reasons for the use of fluoride in both drinking water and toothpaste.
There are many organizations (and government health agencies) which monitor issues like fluoride additives in an effort to promote oral health.
"These groups monitor community water fluoride levels and tries to promote that communities continue to optimize water fluoridation," explains the dentist.
Soon, the city manager was able to explain to Stuefen – as well as the CDC, DNR, IDA and everyone else who called, visited or emailed – that Vinton had been, still was, and always would be adding fluoride to its water.
The issue has been put to rest; Mayor John Watson said simply during that first June meeting: "We are putting fluoride in the water."
And, Ward said, his visit to the dentist wasn’t so bad.
Flouride does present challenges for municipal water workers, said Ward.
“The fluoride we use is actually an acid, and it does not play well with other chemicals, he explains.
And, he adds, if there is too much fluoride in a city water supply – a problem that has affected other Iowa communities, but not Vinton – it can be a challenge to add chemicals to lower those fluoride levels.