I’ve deliberately let some time pass before attempting to cover the events of last month’s joint meeting of the Public Utilities and the Health and Human Services committees. It was the first significant airing of the fluoridation issue since Randi Shade held hearings in 2011, an opportunity her defeat for re-election brought to a close. Regrettably we did not get the level playing field we had hoped for. But we received useful front page coverage from the Statesman (for once posing as neutral) and learned a great deal from the experience.
Perhaps our hardest takeaway is that the “new” 10-1 Council is for the most part just as susceptible to special interest pressure as the at-large one we left behind. That it’s not entirely unexpected doesn’t make it any less a disappointment, though the picture has been brightened by support from the libertarian-minded Don Zimmerman (District 6) who was willing to bring the fluoridation issue to the table. Mayor Steve Adler, unquestionably more open to new ideas than was his predecessor, has yet to weigh in.
The format was to be one of equal time for both sides: 10-15 minutes of formal presentation, plus two 3-minute citizens communication slots for each. However, that would shift considerably. PUC chair Delia Garza, recently returned from maternity leave, expressed no curiosity about a chemical whose safety for babies has raised so many questions, but rather seemed committed to moving the process along without leaving her comfort zone.
First up to bat was Austin/Travis County medical officer Philip Huang, accompanied by his favorite prop, a rolling cart stacked with file folders supposedly containing hundreds of studies that prove fluoridation safe and effective. Garza, sitting through his rapid-fire monologue as stoically as those who have seen the show before, allowed him to drone on for 20 minutes without penalty. To this, she permitted the stacking of two Austin dentist-bureaucrats: Matthew Heck and Elyse Barron for an additional seven minutes.
Our speakers: Dr. Griffin Cole DDS, Bill Swail, RPh (owner of Austin’s popular People’s Pharmacy) and San Antonio-based LULAC leader Henry Rodriguez came prepared with tightly-crafted presentations. Caught off guard by Garza’s last-minute offer of extra time, they were not able make full use of it.
Because the entire proceeding is available to view at the top of this page we won’t go deeply into the specifics here. Suffice it to say that the fluoridationists came on strong with their usual cut and paste endorsements from the CDC and related websites. Cole, Swail and Rodriguez countered their propaganda with as much real information as they could pack into the short allotted time.
None of which seemed to spark much interest among the councilmembers with the exception of Don Zimmerman, author of the proposed anti-fluoride resolution. In the interest of brevity, Garza allowed only two 3-minute citizens communication speaker slots for each side of the issue. Rae Nadler-Olenick and Dr. Joan Sefcik DDS spoke against fluoridation. The pro-F side was filled by dentist James McLane and one Stephanie Rubin who introduced herself only as ‘an Austin resident and parent of a four-year-old” but who in fact possesses strong ties to the fluoridation-pushing Pew Trusts.
In the limited discussion that followed, only Zimmerman expressed any objection to the uncontrolled forced-medication of an entire population, including babies, with an arsenic-contaminated industrial waste. The behavior of the other Council members–who had clearly made up their minds in advance–was quite telling. All clung to a blind denial of fluoride’s toxicity; acceptance of the fantasy of some delicately-balanced “optimal.” dose; and a willingness to ignore the inconvenient fact that if 0.7 ppm is “just right” for children who don’t brush their teeth, it will be too much for those who do.
PUC Chair Garza, who by breastfeeding will spare her own infant exposure to the toxin for at least the crucial first six months, seemed bored for the most part. Neither safety nor effectiveness appeared important to her, only the power to force families to take their medicine one way or another.
Ellen Troxclair (who keeps fluoride free water in her office) revealed her weakness by retreating into a shell of silence. Animated and involved at the June 17 meeting, she fidgeted during Rodriguez’ talk, ate while a clip about St. David’s Foundation’s Healthy Smiles program played, and generally showed herself unready for some of the grittier aspects of big city politics.
Almost as astounding was the transformation of Ann Kitchen, in two months, from concerned public servant to Keeper of the Faith. Though Kitchen’s ties to the public health industry are well known, the opinions she expressed on this occasion were nowhere in evidence back in June. We’re tempted to wonder what happened in the interim.
Ora Houston’s good intentions collided with a scary cluelessness. She declared, shockingly, that 6,000 District 1 children go to bed hungry at night. If that’s true, then spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to prevent those same hungry kids who grew up with fluoridated water from having “more cavities than they do already” hardly seems the best use of resources. The toxicity of fluoride is completely lost on her. Houston has spent years in the human services field and will believe anything a public health “authority” tells her. Fortunately, a sizeable number of her constituents have more sense than that.
Kathie Tovo (District 6) was a no-show. Just as well. She wasn’t needed.
To sum up: once more we failed to get an equitable airing. The Council Committee system is a double-edged sword which opens some doors while closing others, and committee chairs wield a great deal of control over the direction a hearing will take. One chaired by Councilman Zimmerman might very well have had a different outcome.
There are still avenues to pursue. The matter is far from settled, and meanwhile Austinites should avoid drinking the city’s tap water as many have already begun to do.