After Sandy crisis, some Salt Lake County leaders want to remove fluoride from tap water

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The (Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The fluoride feed tank at the Southwest Groundwater Treatment Plant in West Jordan, Tuesday, Feb. 19. 2019

After a fluoride pump malfunctioned and flooded parts of Sandy’s water system with unsafe amounts of the mineral last week, some residents and lawmakers are issuing calls to reconsider a ballot initiative voters passed more than 18 years ago that required fluoride in Salt Lake County’s water.

Among them is Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton.

“I am frustrated that fluoride is required to be in my water. I truly believe that medicating our water is just wrong,” she posted on Facebook on Monday. “Fluoridation is toxic in high doses and we have seen this through the recent issue in Sandy. It is also expensive and most of it is going on our lawns! Is it time to put this on the ballot again and allow voters to decide if we should continue fluoridating our water?"

Newton also posted a comment on Rep. Kim Coleman’s Facebook page stating, “I am completely against medicating our water with fluoride. We really should put this on the ballot again, and recognize those who fund the pro-fluoride arguments are those companies who stand to make millions providing the fluoride. It’s so wrong!!”

In an interview Tuesday, Newton was much more subdued, saying she hasn’t taken a stance on the issue yet but believes the presence of fluoride in the county’s water deserves a closer look.

“My question is, are we to a point where kids are getting enough fluoride through their toothpaste and at the dentist that we can look at, 'Is this still necessary to have in our water supply, or is it still something that we need to be concerned with?’ ” she said Tuesday. “[Personally] I have concerns with government putting medication in my water whether I want it or not, so I was interested to throw it out there and kind of see what other peoples’ take was.”

While experts say fluoride is beneficial in small doses, unsafe levels can cause health problems. Residents in the affected Sandy area reported gastrointestinal problems and stomach cramping and pains but were not expected to face long-term health effects.

Newton, who noted there’s “no doubt” that fluoride can be beneficial, said she heard arguments both for and against fluoride on her recent Facebook post asking residents whether it’s time to put the issue to voters again. That conversation occurred also on a post from Sandy alerting residents that their water was now safe to drink, where more than a half-dozen people spoke against the mineral in their water supply.

“Let’s just get rid of the fluoride all together please,” one commenter said.

“Agreed,” another responded. “Best way to ensure this never happens again!”

During a council meeting on Tuesday, Sandy City Councilman Chris McCandless also raised concerns about fluoridation.

“Perhaps back then [when the fluoride initiative was passed] it was necessary, but things change,” he said, noting that he gets plenty of the mineral from his toothpaste.

Many Sandy residents have expressed frustration that they were allowed to drink possibly tainted water for a week before they heard about the problems, which began because of a power outage at one of the city’s wells. The Utah Department of Environmental Quality has cited the city for the high fluoride levels and is determining if Sandy appropriately reported elevated levels of lead and copper.

Prior to the Sandy City Council’s decision to open an investigation into the incident, Council Chairwoman Kris Nicholl said the residents she’s spoken with are more concerned about a lack of communication than about fluoride in their water.

And while the council has no authority to change the fluoride mandate, Nicholl said she would support a ballot initiative to repeal the last one “if that’s what our residents want.”

Nicholas Rupp, a spokesman and environmental health scientist with the Salt Lake County Health Department, said he understands that the situation has caused concern among residents across the county. But he stressed that in the time since 59 percent of voters approved an initiative in 2000 to require fluoride in culinary water ― a mandate that was implemented in 2003 ― the county has never had a problem with over-fluoridation.

“As someone who drinks our community water like everyone else, I absolutely understand their concern,” he said. “It makes sense, given what happened. But I think we also need to recognize that the incident in Sandy was an extraordinarily rare malfunction."

For children younger than 8, Rupp said fluoride helps strengthen the adult teeth they’re developing under their gums. And for adults, drinking water with fluoride supports existing tooth enamel, keeping teeth strong and healthy.

“I don’t think we should discount the many years of positive benefits that we’ve received as a community,” he said.

In the wake of the incident in Sandy, the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, which provides water to most of the southwest area of Salt Lake County, is also working to educate its users on fluoride.

Linda Townes, the organization’s public information manager, said there has never been an incident associated with fluoride at any of its water treatment facilities, each of which has monitoring equipment and regular field testing to verify its machines are working properly and not releasing unsafe quantities of the mineral.

“We don’t want people to be afraid,” she said. “I can see why this is a scary situation, but we take fluoride very seriously. It’s actually a hazardous chemical, and we deal with it very vigilantly because we don’t want something like this to happen.”

Not all counties in Utah have mandated fluoride in their drinking water. The Utah Health Department said that is up to individual communities and that it doesn’t track which do. Residents can check to see fluoride rates in their area at https://health.utah.gov/oralhealth/fluoride.php.