This afternoon, the Austin City Council’s Public Utilities Committee and Health and Human Services Committee are both taking on an issue that’s trickled through, and sometimes flooded, City Hall: fluoridation of water.
The issue’s prevalence has ebbed and flowed over the years in city politics, but two Austinites, both with the surname Taylor, at opposite ends of the spectrum helped water fluoridation boil over into the national spotlight.
It all started with a small town in Deaf Smith County in the Panhandle, Hereford. While known for its wealth of cattle, in the ‘30s and ‘40s it also boasted another, less conventional claim to fame: None of its residents had cavities. The phenomenon was discovered by an Alabama-transplant dentist, Dr. G.W. Heard. In 1939, the 74-year-old Heard commented about the town’s collective dental health to Austin-based dentist Dr. Edward Taylor, the Texas State Dental Health Officer – positing that the likely cause of the en masse dental health was a wealth of fluoride in the town’s water supply, as well as the mineral-rich soil.
Taylor commissioned a survey of the town’s residents, finding that 43 of all natives surveyed, from a 2-year-old to pre-senior residents, had no cavities or fillings ever in their lifetime. What’s more, Taylor found that cavities of non-native transplants had been lulled into a relative stasis – they didn’t develop new cavities, and the previous cavities they’d had weren’t reactive anymore.
Taylor published the results of his survey in the Journal of the American Dental Association in 1942, and his work inspired studies that were examined in a national profile on Hereford in Collier’s, “The Town Without a Toothache,” which rooted the connection between fluoridation and cavity-free teeth in the public consciousness. The article failed to mention, however, the town’s water contained a high concentration of fluoride – three parts per million (ppm), compared to the CDC’s recommendation of 0.7 ppm – that caused dental fluorosis, or “Texas Teeth.” Considering research that preceded Taylor’s and the pro-fluoride studies that followed in his wake, in 1950, the American Dental Association officially endorsed fluoridation of water.
That same year, when many cities were considering fluoridating their water supplies in an effort to promote dental health – 20 alone in Texas – another Taylor, Dr. Alfred Taylor, began a study testing a possible link between fluoride and cancer – initially to test a hypothesis that it was anti-carcinogenic.
Taylor’s study at UT’s Clayton Biomedical Institute fed cancer-prone mice fluoridated water to test if they would grow tumors more quickly than mice that were fed distilled water. He and his team hadn’t even finalized the study before its results were revealed to the general public. It seems somebody on his research team leaked the results.
Those 20 cities in Texas halted their fluoridation efforts after Taylor’s study was published. Taylor testified before a Congressional committee in 1952 and the AP’s coverage, for some, cemented the connection between fluoride and cancer.
“The rumor afforded the opponents, the diehards, and the lukewarms a screen to hide behind,” said his counterpart Edward Taylor of the study.
It even prompted the attention of the Public Health Service, which came to Austin to attempt to replicate Alfred Taylor’s experiment. They couldn’t. As it turns out, Taylor had been feeding his mice fluoridated water and Purina food, which contained 60 times the amount of fluoride recommended by CDC guidelines.
Still, Taylor completed another study that found harmful effects in 1965 that's still cited by anti-fluoride advocates.
The Austin City Council suggested in 1953 that the issue should be put to a vote “whenever that became an issue” and the council continuously heard arguments for and against fluoridation at over a dozen meetings in the 1960s. In 1971, council put the item on the April ballot and it passed. Council again put on the ballot after pushback, and fluoridation appeared on the ballot in September of the following year. That proposal was binding, but, because it was initiated by council and not a citizen petition, it meant the council could decide upon the issue if it were taken up at the dais.
Years later, the issue still rankles many Austinites and, because of that 1972 ballot initiative, the city’s practice is still subject to council approval.
This story originally said it was the Health and Human Services Committee that discussed this issue, but it was also the Public Utilities Committee. It's been updated.