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Wyo. Debate Simmers Decades After Fluoridation

A Cold War "red scare" campaign against compulsory medication helped kill off five years of fluoridation in this northern Wyoming city in 1954.

The federal government has long since called fluoridation one of the greatest public health achievements of the 20th century. But it was only a few weeks ago that Sheridan's City Council voted to resume fluoridating municipal drinking water.

Then, On Jan. 7, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced plans to lower the recommended level of fluoride in drinking water for the first time in nearly 50 years, based on a fresh review of the science that suggested some Americans, particularly children, may be getting too much fluoride.

Anti-fluoride activists here and nationwide said they feel some vindication.

"Not to say, 'Ha-ha, We're right.' That's not our way," said Carol Kopf, spokeswoman for the Fluoride Action Network, one of several groups that maintain a steady drumbeat of anti-fluoridation news and information for those who go searching for it online.

Decades of studies have demonstrated fluoride's ills, Kopf insisted, and the federal government only now seems to be waking up. "We understand the wheels of government move very slowly," she said.

The government's lower water fluoride recommendation clearly gives new energy to fluoridation opponents.

"We don't need to live in a nanny state, have everything run for us. Whatever happened to our freedoms? They shouldn't be dictating everything for us," said Sheridan resident Jay Norwash.

So, why is fluoridation resuming, maybe, in this quintessentially Western small town of about 17,000 at the foothills of the Big Horn Mountains? The idea resurfaced with plans to upgrade the town's water treatment plants. A public health dental hygienist, Janet Berry, argued that as long as Sheridan was improving its water plants, it ought to begin adding fluoride.

She collected signatures from 233 of the city's medical professionals, including all but one of its 14 or so dentists.

"We know a lot about water fluoridation. This isn't a new thing," said Berry, whose state-funded job includes teaching good oral health habits to schoolchildren.

The council voted 4-2 on Dec. 20 to reintroduce fluoride after an absence of some 56 years.

Mayor Dave Kinskey said opponents to fluoride ought to think about other chemicals, such as chlorine, the city has been putting in the water for decades.

"Now, if the government is wrong about the fluoride, certainly those same folks should feel they're wrong about the chlorine," Kinskey said.

Kinskey also pointed to reports suggesting that every $1 spent on water fluoridation saves $38 in dental treatment, and that 948 children in Sheridan County last year incurred $304,000 in Medicaid dental costs.

"Somebody has to speak up for those children, and what kind of choice or what kind of option they have, especially in those years, when that fluoride _ that little bit of extra fluoride _ would do them the most good," he said.

That particular argument sticks in the craw of people like Erin Adams _ "pretty arrogant," she calls it _ who said one reason she and her family moved to Sheridan from California eight years ago was that her community in the San Francisco Bay area was considering fluoridation.

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