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The Dallas City Council Will Put a Lid on Fluoride Talk Tuesday—For Now

The city somehow still isn't done talking about fluoride.
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Dallas added fluoride to its drinking water in 1965 at the urging of local dentists and medical experts. Now in 2023, the City Council will hear about the merits of fluoridated drinking water for the third time in as many months.

Dr. Mary Swift of the Texas Dental Association, the American Board of Pediatric Dentistry’s Dr. Johnny Johnson, and Dallas County Health and Human Services director Dr. Philip Huang addressed the council’s Quality of Life, Arts and Culture committee in October. The panel presented reasons why the city should continue adding fluoride to its drinking water, including recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Dental Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the World Health Association. 

But two council members—Adam Bazaldua and Paula Blackmon—wanted a presentation from “the other side.”

“There are some questions that I’d like to hear answered from an unbiased standpoint,” Bazaldua said, adding that he felt that the presentation was “somewhat tilted to one side versus another.”

Blackmon said she felt that the city should reevaluate periodically “because times have changed since the 50s … and I think it’s a fair question for this question to ask, in 2023 is a practice that we had in 1950 still a fair practice given what we have in our society today?

“This is the exercise of going through this.”

So in the committee’s November meeting, a whole new, second panel brought their best arguments for why the city should stop using fluoride. That panel included Dr. Griffin Cole from the International Academy of Oral Medicine and Toxicology, Bruce Lanphear from Simon Fraser University, and Dr. John Staniland from the Fluoride Action Network.

Their slides displayed articles and data linking fluoride to developmental issues, lower brain function, and making teeth more brittle. For some council members, the presentation was frustratingly short on source attribution.

“To come before us and pull out little pieces here and there, when this was your moment, is just disappointing to me,” said Councilwoman Gay Donnell Willis. “It forced me to go in and do a lot of research that didn’t even start with a footnote that middle school presentations have.”

Willis argued that the panel cherry-picked from reports and papers that needed to be peer-reviewed. Bazaldua also chastised the panel for not providing context for the points made in the presentation. 

“Adam allowed for important public discourse, and Gay killed it by doing her homework,” Councilwoman Jaynie Schultz told me in a text message. “We’re done with this topic.”

You can watch the presentation and the committee’s disappointment here, starting at the 1:19:00 mark. 

Dallas Water Utilities Director Sarah Standifer and Assistant Director Sally Wright will present Tuesday’s final (sort of, because this will never die) briefing. In the interim, the city staff also compiled a 104-page memo outlining probably everything you’d ever want to know about the city’s fluoride program. It’s dense. It’s thorough. It’s an elephant dart to the face that shows how underprepared the anti-fluoride panel’s presentation was. The debate has taken up a significant amount of time on what is considered settled science.

The debate was dumb the first time. It was really dumb the second time. Hopefully, the third time puts the entire matter to rest. But don’t bet on it—this isn’t the first time the city has debated fluoride.

The city’s decision nearly 60 years ago resulted in a referendum. About 38,000 voters made Dallas the first city with more than 500,000 residents to defeat an anti-fluoride measure. The turnout was one of the largest single-issue referendum turnouts in the city’s history. 

By 2014, an anti-fluoride activist caught the ear of then-Councilman Sheffie Kadane by pointing out that the city could save more than half a million dollars a year by skipping fluoride. Kadane (who is not a scientist or a doctor) later led the charge to remove the additive for health reasons. His research seemed to be primarily based on a paper in The Lancet Neurology, which had been erroneously interpreted by the anti-fluoride contingent, one of its authors said.

That year, almost every publication in Dallas pointed out that this debate wasn’t in good faith and used a lot of flawed data. Dallas Morning News columnist Jacquielynn Floyd wrote about the whole ordeal in words that, rather ridiculously, still apply. 

She said anti-fluoride people routinely use their allotted three minutes at the city’s open microphone during briefings and meetings. Floyd wrote that some tend to veer toward conspiracy theories, but it doesn’t mean council members must take up their causes.

“They just have to be polite,” she said. “This leaves me at a loss to understand why, after months of courteous indifference, some council members suddenly seem sympathetic to the views of a vocal band of anti-fluoridation cranks.”

Last week, Bazaldua indicated that the matter wouldn’t go before the entire council. “The city’s decision to add fluoride to the water is based on thresholds set by the CDC, and as a result, there is no action needed to be taken by the council,” he said. 

We already knew that in October, which is what the panel of experts told the committee. We knew that in 2014 when the city studied the matter for months. And we knew that before then, too, because the studies outlining the benefits of fluoridation outpace the cherrypicked pieces of studies that the anti-fluoridation crowd always trots out.

The committee should put the matter to rest (finally) on Tuesday, but don’t count on it being gone forever. I predict that as Dallas heads into 2034, the council will again permit an airing of absurdities about a commonly accepted public health policy over several months. History bears this out.

In 2015, Dallas Morning News editorial board member Rudy Bush wrote with barely contained impatience about the discussion regarding fluoride. He was relieved that the council ultimately chose to continue the practice.

“Let’s hope this issue dies here so all of us in Dallas Water Utilities can continue to benefit,” Bush wrote in 2015.

Unfortunately, that wish was not granted.

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Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson

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Bethany Erickson is the senior digital editor for D Magazine. She's written about real estate, education policy, the stock market, and crime throughout her career, and sometimes all at the same time. She hates lima beans and 5 a.m. and takes SAT practice tests for fun.
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