Monday, July 8, 2013

Has Somebody Poisoned Our Watering Hole?

If you've ever driven north on Monroe Avenue, you've likely noticed the gorgeous, brick building located at 1430 Monroe Avenue NW but may have overlooked a historical marker in the area. These green signs seem to get ignored quite frequently, but on a bike ride some time in the past, I stopped and read this particular piece of history. According to the words on the plaque (you'll get this pun in a minute), Grand Rapids was the first city in the entire world to mix fluoride into its water supply, beginning in January 1945. The history lesson goes on, noting that our city was the subject of a ten-year study to determine if the addition of fluoride to the public water supply was healthy. In 1955, researchers concluded that there was a 65-percent decrease in the prevalence of tooth decay when compared to the control city: nearby Muskegon.

Photo courtesy of SSTEFFEK via Wikimedia Commons
Now known mostly for its architectural value, the building was once acknowledged mainly for the health benefits it supposedly provided. Opened in 1912 and expanded in 1924, the facility began treating water from Lake Michigan in 1938, likely sourcing its water from the Grand River until then, considering the plant's proximity to the river. Besides cavity-defeating fluoride, the treatment plant reportedly helped decrease the number of deaths attributed to typhoid fever from 25 per year to less than two per year. Sources conflict on the dates associated with the end of operations for the facility: One source said 1961 while another said 1992.

Regardless, the fluoridation of our water has been happening for more than six decades. There is much controversy surrounding this topic, even though it has been going on for so long. Scientific and social communities have members that fall on either side of the fence, either for or against the mass fluoridation of the public water supply. It's extremely interesting to realize that the debate, which is still raging, basically began here in Grand Rapids.

Though fluoridation is prevalent here in America, other English-speaking countries have stopped the practice. For instance, a large portion of Europe has ceased fluoridating its water and now, it's banned by the European Union as a violation of human rights. Sweden stopped doing it in 1971; the Netherlands quit in 1976; Finland: 1993. Even the Soviet Union stopped it in 1990, potentially debunking the conspiracy theories that were born during and after the Red Scare, suggesting that fluoridation was a plot crafted by the communists to take over the U.S. in some subversive manner.

You might ask, "Why would those countries stop? What makes fluoridation a human rights violation?" According to advocates against the practice, there are health issues that can be caused by fluoridation. Environmental issues can occur as well. Others oppose fluoridation because it is a form of mass medication, giving the same dosage to individuals in varying stages of life with varying health situations, something that many physicians are opposed to nowadays. Some economically-minded individuals believe that the reported benefits are not worth the cost incurred by the public. Then there is the understandable position of individuals simply wanting a choice when it comes to putting fluoride into their bodies. According to some who are vehemently opposed, at least one type of fluoride that is largely used in the process has never been approved as a medicine nor submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for consideration. This allows such opponents to allege that community water fluoridation is an illegal form of medical research and it may be one of the longest ongoing illegal research studies in the world.

--Matt Knaack lives in Grand Rapids and occasionally blogs for Procare.