For decades, municipalities across the country have added fluoride to public water as a cost-effective way of reducing tooth decay. According to the American Dental Association, more than 70 percent of Americans who are served by public water systems receive optimally fluoridated water.
Memphis Light, Gas & Water (MLGW) began fluoridating Memphis' water in 1970 after the city council passed an ordinance mandating MLGW add 0.7-1.2 parts per million (ppm) of fluoride to the city's drinking water.
Despite its longstanding presence in the Bluff City, water fluoridation is not embraced by all Memphians. Fluoride's supposed links to adverse health effects such as cancer and dental fluorosis, even low IQ levels, have opponents of water fluoridation, such as the Mid-South Fluoride Free Coalition (MSFFC), up in arms.
"Any amount of ingested fluoride isn't good," said Maria Phelps, co-founder of MSFFC. "It's never been approved by the [Food and Drug Administration] for ingestion. It's sold to our water companies as a product. MLGW is misleading the public. We're paying tax dollars for this toxin to be added to our water."
On May 21st, MLGW met with the Memphis City Council, requesting to renew its contract with the water-treatment company Pencco, Inc. and to continue fluoridating Memphis water. The city council approved the contract, which will allow MLGW to purchase $609,000 worth of fluorosilicic acid over the next year.
The only city council member to oppose the renewal was Janis Fullilove. She said fluoridating the city's public water is extremely hazardous to Memphians.
"If you take a hard look at it, it really isn't good for us. It causes all types of physical abnormalities," Fullilove said. "I'm sure this won't be the last time we hear about this. Once our people, here in the city and county, get enough information that they too may agree with me and the [MSFFC], we can have a referendum on the issue [and] people can make an informative vote on it."
Phelps said she and her family have felt the negative effects of water fluoridation. After conducting in-depth research on the topic, she purchased a fluorometer and began to test the city's fluoride water levels. Phelps said she discovered MLGW was "lying to the public on the amount of fluoride they're releasing into the water."
"When you call MLGW, they say they're only putting in 0.7 [ppm], but my fluoride meter reveals 1.7 on a regular basis," Phelps said. "The lowest I've ever seen is 1.4 [ppm]. The highest is 1.9 [ppm] in the city."
MLGW president Jerry Collins challenges the accuracy of Phelps' testing results.
"Any instrument that you use for measuring fluoride must be a calibrated instrument used by a certified laboratory. I wouldn't trust any numbers unless they come from a certified lab," Collins said. "There have always been people against adding fluoride to drinking water since the practice began. MLGW is confident that the concentration we keep in the drinking water is in no way harmful to anyone's health."
Dr. Leslie Gordon, head of the Shelby County Health Department's dental program, agrees that fluoridation of water is extremely beneficial for citizens, especially children.
"The most common chronic disease of children is tooth decay," Gordon said. "As a result of fluoridation of water, there's been a 20 to 40 percent decrease in dental caries, and this is not just in Memphis, but in most cities where water fluoridation has been mandated. There's no doubt about the benefits."