Set aside the science lessons. The fight over fluoride is as much or more a clash of philosophy.
As Wichitans decide whether to add the cavity-fighting chemical to their city’s drinking water, the two sides in the campaign for the Nov. 6 election are pounding away at each other with rhetorical clubs labeled “public good” and “freedom of choice.”
On one side are almost all the city’s doctors and dentists, dismayed by what they see as needless suffering in the patients who come to them with preventable dental decay. They gathered more than 11,000 signatures on an initiative petition that forced the City Council, which had avoided taking a stand on fluoride, to put it to a public vote.
They’ve been met with an equally passionate campaign by fluoride foes who see it as a dangerous forced medication. They see fluoridation as a case of government overstepping its bounds and taking over what they believe should be a matter of personal choice.
Both sides accuse the other of trying to deceive the public to win the election.
The anti-fluoride troops say the dentists and doctors are either ignoring or hiding the real risks of fluoridation to facilitate sales of fluoride, a by-product of the industrial process for making phosphate fertilizer.
The pro-fluoride side says 60 years of track record, 3,000 studies and the experience of three-fourths of Americans has proven fluoridation is an effective and safe way to strengthen everybody’s teeth. And they say the anti-fluoride group is either misunderstanding or willfully distorting science.
The pediatrician Wichita pediatrician Larry Hund said he grew up in Wichita and loves his city, but it sure can be frustrating to try to get something done.
“I’m kind of actually disappointed that there’s that many people who don’t have that community spirit I see and hear in other communities,” Hund said. “I have two daughters in Omaha and when I’m up there I see so many more progressive things happening and it’s people doing things for the community, for the good of the community.”
Part of the problem as he sees it is lack of vision and leadership.
“It seems like in Wichita it just takes us forever for anything to get done,” he said. “I know the City Council just wants to keep everybody happy but I think at some point you have to say ‘Well, this is what’s good for the community, let’s get together and do it.’ ”
Hund sees fluoridation as a health issue primarily, but also a matter of economics and social justice.
“About a third of the children in Wichita, they don’t have parents who have insurance or the kind of incomes where they can buy the fluoride tablets to make sure the kids have healthy teeth. Those fluoride tablets, from 3 to 13 years of age, it’s 10 years worth of tablets and it may just be $4 to $6 a month or something like that, but it adds up and it’s hard to do that being a parent.
“To help our people who are a little bit less fortunate to bring themselves up in the community and achieve better things, I think we as a community should help those people and I think oral health is a big factor in that. It is true when they go to get a job at 18 or 20 or whatever their age is, I think oral health makes a difference as far as how you present yourself and how confident you are.
“I’m a native Wichitan and you can tell by my teeth. I’ve got a filling in every one of my molars and I have to go and get my fourth crown here in another month or so because I’ve got a cracked tooth where there was a filling. That’s going to be $1,000 or thereabouts for a crown. Not everybody can afford that. To take away something that every other community bigger than us does — and it’s kind of a given thing they don’t even think twice about — I think those people are looking after their community.”
But Hund said he thinks distrust of government has become so ingrained in the opposition to fluoride that it’s difficult to impossible to have a rational public discourse on the merits of the plan at hand.
“I think it’s under the disguise of medical problems and things like that, but I think a lot of them, they really don’t want the government messing with their water and they want to be able to do what they want to do with their water and so forth. They just don’t see the value to the community.
“I love this community. I chose to come back here and practice and I love the people, but it’s really frustrating to deal with a subject like this, or like with the landfill issues or recycling issues. There’s always something where we just can’t get together and do something for the common good. And I think it detracts from the community.”
The activist Mark Gietzen has been many things in Wichita politics. He’s served as chairman of the county Republican Party and longtime president of the conservative Kansas Republican Assembly.
As president of the Kansas Coalition for Life, he organized years of daily protest at the clinic of the late Dr. George Tiller, until the abortion provider was shot to death by an anti-abortion activist in 2009.
Gietzen has thrown himself heart and soul into the anti-fluoride movement, organizing meetings, wrangling volunteers, printing and distributing thousands of fliers and mining the Internet for evidence that fluoride is harmful.
“I’m a very strong believer that the government has absolutely no right to put a medication in my body that I don’t want and in fact that I know is going to cause trouble with multiple organs in my body and probably does no good or very little good for my teeth. I flat absolutely don’t want that,” Gietzen said. “I am 100 percent angered by the audacity of somebody thinking they can give me a treatment, No. 1 that’s not proven safe, and that they’re going to medicate me without my permission — and I don’t need or want or desire and don’t want to pay for it – that is the ultimate example of government putting themselves in a place where they should not be.
“I am absolutely proud to be an American. I’m absolutely one who thinks that every human being should have a right to make their own decisions (and) as long as my decision doesn’t hurt you, then I should have the freedom of choice to make my own decision. By golly if I want to go out buy a tube of toothpaste and swallow it all and die from it, so be it. My life, freedom of choice.”
Gietzen said one of the main things that bothers him about fluoride is that once it’s in the water, it’s extraordinarily difficult to get it out.
“The only way you can separate the fluoride from the water is either through distillation or reverse osmosis,” he said. “When you have like X parts per million and you put it in your carbon filter and you look what comes out, it’s cleaned up everything, taken the iron out, it’s taken all the other minerals out of the water and ... guess what, it doesn’t even reduce it (fluoride). It’s exactly what you put in in parts per million.
“Even if you stop drinking it and you spend $2,000 or $3,000 to get a reverse osmosis filter system so you’ve got some pure water to drink, then you’ve taken a loss in that you’ve lost all the good minerals ... then you’re going to have to take mineral supplements to make up for that.”
And he absolutely rejects the contention that fluoridation would improve public health.
“We don’t agree with the ‘public good’ side,” Gietzen said. “There’s no proof that fluoride does any good. It certainly does less good than xylitol gum. If somebody’s out there trying to be a do-gooder and medicate me without my permission, then they should be trying to force me to chew xylitol gum because that stops 70 percent of the cavities and the best, most outlandish unproven thing the fluoride people come up with is a 40 percent reduction in cavities.
“The driving force behind this is not health of the people, it’s to sell the doggone product, that’s what it is.”
The politics As a battle over big government, the fluoride fight is not without some small ironies.
One is that the regulation of fluoride in drinking water is primarily a responsibility of private-sector organizations, not the government.
The Centers for Disease Control, a government agency, adopted guidelines suggesting the optimal levels of fluoridation, but the rest is left up to nongovernmental entities.
The American Water Works Association, a nongovernment nonprofit group, sets the engineering and operational guidelines for fluoridation systems, to ensure local agencies get the right concentration of the chemical into their water, said Paul Olson, the group’s director of standards.
The association works in concert with the NSF, formerly the National Sanitation Foundation, another nongovernmental group that sets the standards for the purity of the fluoride that goes into the water supply, and works with manufacturers to make sure those standards are met, he said.
Another irony is that if fluoridation does come to Wichita, it will in spite of government, not because of it.
Wichita has rejected fluoridation several times in the past, both in the City Commission (later City Council) chambers and in public votes.
Since the last big fluoride flare-up in 1978, City Councils have avoided the issue.
This time, reluctant council members were dragged into addressing the issue. The citizens’ petition drive forced them, by state law, to either adopt fluoridation or put it on the election ballot.
Only one council member, Janet Miller, argued to adopt the ordinance outright. But she eventually made the motion and joined the unanimous vote to put it to a vote.
The history The limited-government fervor which is partly driving the anti-fluoride movement is a staple of Wichita’s political life, said Ken Ciboski, professor of political science at Wichita State University and longtime observer of and participant in local Republican politics.
It’s been that way for a long time, going back to at least the Red Scare of the 1950s, Ciboski said.
“I think it comes back to what Wichita seems to be all about,” Ciboski said. “After all, wasn’t one of the founders of the John Birch Society located here? Fred Koch. Really, Wichita was kind of a hotbed of kind of a different kind of radicalism in a way.”
Koch, who founded what is now Koch Industries, did not start the John Birch Society but was an early member of the council that advised founder Robert Welch, according to the society. The Birch Society had long faded from view, but is in the midst of a comeback. In the 1950s and ’60s, it was a powerful movement in Kansas, fighting what its members saw as an international communist conspiracy to control America through expanding government powers.
The Birch Society also was a leading opponent of fluoridation, which started in the 1940s and picked up steam through the ’50s and ’60s.
The John Birch Society was an active participant in Wichita’s 1964 referendum that repealed fluoridation after the City Commission had voted to implement it.
The opposition was led by a dentist who was a member of the Birch Society, who argued that fluoridation was mass medication for a non-communicable disease, a violation of individual rights.
During that debate, some opponents labeled the pro-fluoridation forces as “tools of the Communists” and one anti-fluoride publication asked: “Shall we give the Communists the machinery and the materials to destroy us by simply opening a valve in our water supply?”
The Jaycees, who supported fluoride, held a news conference complaining that supporters’ patriotism was being questioned. Fluoridation was defeated, 31,415 to 18,749.Except for the comments about communism, today’s debates for and against fluoride echo almost word-for-word the speeches delivered by the protagonists half a century ago.
Ciboski said he’s not surprised to see local fluoride history repeat itself.
“Wichita, it seems to me, is kind of peculiar in a way about a lot of things, and this is one of them,” he said.