Gilbert plant not fluoridating water; 2 town official put on leave

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by Catherine Holland

Video report by Javier Soto

Posted on August 24, 2012 at 9:51 AM

Updated Friday, Aug 24 at 10:00 AM

GILBERT, Ariz. -- Gilbert residents who voted more than a decade ago to have fluoride added to their water were dismayed to learn recently that they have not been getting it for more than a year. Two city officials have been placed on leave in connection with the situation.

According to Dana Berchman, the town's chief digital officer, Gilbert officials were recently informed that the fluoridation process has not been happening at the North Water Treatment Plant for at least the past 13 months.

Gilbert voters approved fluoridation in November 2000.

As Gilbert's public works director, Lonnie Frost headed up the implementation of the fluoridation process. Frost and Chris Oches, the town's water manager, have been placed on leave. Frost's wife has been a vocal opponent of fluoridation.

"This is unacceptable and we are taking immediate steps to remedy the situation," Berchman said in a news release.

The town has launched an investigation into the situation and is working to get the fluoridation system online.

The water is perfectly safe to drink. It simply does not have supplemental fluoride. It's still not clear if the fluoride was intentionally left out.

Berchman said the town would release additional information as the investigation progressed.

The issue came to light earlier this month.

Added fluoride was found to be missing from Gilbert's water during routine tests required to make sure the town is in compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act, which, among other things, regulates the amount of fluoride that can be added to water.

While fluoride has not been added to the water processed at the North Water Treatment Plant for more than a year, the cavity-fighting chemical is still being added to water at the Santan Vista Water Treatment Plant, which is operated jointly with Chandler.

Fluoridation is a contentious issue for towns and cities throughout the country. Phoenix, for example, is considering end its fluoridation program after more than 20 years, and at least one of the newest Gilbert Town Council members reportedly is asking his colleagues to consider ending Gilbert's fluoridation program. That discussion, if it happens, is separate from the what's happening -- or not happening, as the case appears to be -- at the North Water Treatment Plant.

The fight over fluoride is by no means a new one.

Dentists are staunch supporters of fluoridation.

Not only has the American Dental Association has stood behind fluoridation since the '50s, the "CDC has recognized water fluoridation as one of 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century."

“Water fluoridation has been accepted as a safe, effective, and inexpensive method of preventing tooth decay,” according to the CDC’s website. “Adding fluoride to municipal drinking water is an efficient strategy to reduce dental disease among Americans of all social strata. It is the most cost-effective way to prevent tooth decay among populations living in areas with adequate community water supply systems.”

Opponents of the process, however, point to the potential hazards of ingesting too much fluoride, including weight gain, tooth discoloration (dental fluorosis), arthritis-like symptoms and thyroid-related muscle pain, not mention side effects that doctors have not yet discovered.

The Fluoride Action Network, a group that would like to see cities stop adding fluoride to their water, says fluoridation is a "form of medical treatment," pointing out that individual doses cannot be controlled because people drink different amounts of water. FAN goes a step further to call fluoridation unethical because the government is "forcing people to take a medicine irrespective of their consent."

FAN members also say fluoride comes from many sources and thus is not needed in municipal water.

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