What a night December 2 was! I’m still in a state of shock and awe (in a good way) over the evening’s proceedings, and if I’m tardy in updating this blog it’s because I was busy with a thousand other things in the aftermath. .
To synopsize, for those new to this drama: last August, the Environmental Board voted unanimously to recommend that City Council establish an independent task force to re-examine Austin’s longtime water fluoridation policy. Bypassing the Council, the City Manager’s .office hastily convened a highly biased, 100% in-house committee whose endorsement of the status quo was a forgone conclusion. The EB was left completely out of the loop.
December 2 was the EB’s first meeting since the issuance of the whitewash report, and fluoridation opponents gathered at City Hall at 6 pm to hear a briefing on the report by City staff and publicly respond to it. We made a good showing, at least 20 strong, possibly more. Ten of us promptly signed up to speak during citizens’ communication, with several more signing away their own speaking time to others. We were privileged to have present Bill Kiel, the Alamo Height former city councilman who singlehandedly staved off water fluoridation in his town. Soft-spoken, persuasive, immensely knowledgable, Kiel, a retired geophysicist who once directed Shell laboratories here and abroad is the fluoride fighter’s dream ally. He arrived before everyone else, unfazed at having just driven 80 miles to speak for three minutes (in the end, he took six).
Dr. Mary Gay Maxwell, the EB chair.called the meeting to order at 6:10 p.m. Becaust there was another order of business ahead of ours, it was 6:50 when chairwoman Maxwell called for the Water Fluoridation Report briefing. First up to the plate was Jane Burazer, assistant director of the Austin Water Utility’s treatment dvision, who would probablly have been happier at home or at a movie, or just about anywhere else. It was easy to feel sympathy for Ms. Burazer as she stood there forced tediously to defend treatment practices that have not been called into question. Never have we accused AWU of setting the treatment policies we challenge, or of carrying them out otherwise than competently. Yet, because the Report never addresses real concerns about the safety of the industrial waste product routinely dumped into our drinking water but instead focuses on the minutae of “best practices”, she confined her comments to addressing those.
Dr. Philip Huang, Medical Director for Austin-Travis County Health and Human Services went next. Dr. Huang, neither a toxicologist nor a dentist, delivered the expected platitudes. In language that could have – and probably did – come straight from the website of the CDC (for which august institution he formerly worked as an Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer), he smugly compared Austin’s average 0.75 parts per million to the EPA’s discredited, sky-high 4.0 ppm allowable maximum, and invoked the old saw “$18 health benefit for a 50-cents investment, not neglecting to mention the “social equity” factor.
Chris Harrington, of the Watershed Protection Department, the third and final speaker, downplayed any negative effects of fluoridation on the environment. No member of the City’s department was present.
Now it was time for citizens communication: our turn.
Bill Kiel spoke first. Using he brief time well, he made five strong points in quick succession: that the EPA’s 4.0 ppm safety standard has been roundly discredited in the National Research Council’s searing 2006 report; that today, drinking water comprises only half our daily fluoride intake; that the CDC itself warns against using fluoridated water in baby formula, and admits fluoride works topically, not through ingestion; that the Assistant City Manager’s Report was at least 20 years out of date on the science.
Neil Carman, Ph.D., taking nine minutes, followed that up with a list of 26 scientific omissions in the City’s whitewash report – ranging from the high toxicity of the fluoridation chemical used to its questionable purity to the lack of control over individual dosages.
In an entertaining interlude, another speaker, Rob Love, used his three minutes to put questions to Dr. Huang. The sequence, though short, was revealing. Caught in what should have been embarrassing absurdities regarding fluoride’s toxicity and cost, Huang stuck calmly tp his script, showing little sign of discomfort. To those familiar with the sight of health bureaucrats at work, such an attitude is typical – a good thing to keep in mind for those who would oppose them.
The general mood was on mildly raucous. Both whoops and sotto voce comments broke out from time to time; chairwoman Maxwell issued several cautions. But the real tension came from the dias and the Board members’ own discussion.
John Beall, who last August fretted that pro-fluoride task force reps might be hard to find, now pulled out a recent CDC proclamation designed to neutralize the agency’s own admission that fluoride works topically, not through ingestion. The new justification for swilling it is that it becomes part of saliva, which “constantly bathes the teeth” at a very low concentration. It was a most arcane piece of information for an average citizen to be walking around with.
Phil Moncada, always direct and pragmatic, made a two pronged motion: (1) that City staff address the deficiencies of their report as identified by Dr. Neil Carman; and (2) that the City Council establish the impartial study th e Environmental Board originally called for. Rodney Ahart, whose desire for an honest inquiry has been plain throughout, quickly seconded it. Beall immediately jumped in to urge that the motion not move forward because “some of the things we’ve heard this evening are a bit misleading.” The self-described Google researcher then went on to offer some misleading statements of his own: that Harvard had studied osteosarcoma for 15 years without finding any evidence of harm (wrong)
http://www.redorbit.com/news/health/174282/harvard_looks_into_profs_cancer_research/index.html ; that dental fluorosis is just a mild cosmetic condition that “most of the time you can’t even detect” without a magnifying gloss (wrong: just look around you);
If Beall’s position was anticipated, Mary Ann Neely’s was downright shocking. Neely, Mayor Leffingwell’s appointee, who back in August voted aye with the rest of the Board, now declared the matter “above our pay grade” – and suggested handing it over to the Feds! Her stunning flip-flop threw the outcome into doubt, and I probably wasn’t the only one gnawing my nails at this point.
Dr. Maxwell weighed in, firmly pointing out that Austin’s drinking water is not a federal matter. Then, she addressed, with forthrightnes and class, the awkward situation the City Manager’s office had created by its end run, without notice, around the EB’s August request. “I’m just registering my extreme displeasure at this outworking of the request that we had made in all honesty and good will,” she said. “There was nothing that was conflictive or subversive or anything else. We just were asking for something. So I’m just putting this out there, but this makes me very disturbed. It’s very hard to be the chair of a Board that’s been put in this position. I just want everybody to understand that.”
She then called for a vote. After a timeless moment of heart-pounding suspense, the meassure carried 4-3; Maxwell, Moncada, Ahart and Robin Gary in favor; Beall, Neely and John Anderson opposed. Applause broke out. To my eye it’s clear that last summer, before the Board members realized how sensitive the fluoridation issue is, it was easy and natural to do the right thing. The City Manager’s bizarre response put them on notice. And at least some of them probably heard from their appointing Council members too. Water fluoridation – or more specifically, questioning the need for it – is a political hot potato. And it’s still alive in Austin. The December 2 vote doesn’t force the City Council to act. But it does put them on notice that the issue is a durable one, not to be lightly shrugged off.
The memorable evening can be viewed in its entirety here: http://austintx.swagit.com/play/12022009-38/0/.
It has so far spawned two Austin Chronicle follow-up pieces
a Daily Texan story and two popular You Tube videos.