Kentucky water utilities could opt out of putting fluoride in drinking water under advancing bill

Dentists, oral health advocates and insurer Delta Dental are strongly opposed

By: - February 8, 2024 5:34 pm

Rep. Mark Hart, R-Falmouth, foreground, presents his bill that would make community water fluoridation optional in Kentucky. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Liam Niemeyer)

FRANKFORT — Kentucky water utilities would no longer be required to add or adjust fluoride in tap water supplies — a state requirement since the mid-20th century aimed at improving  Kentuckians’ dental health — under a bill approved by a legislative committee Thursday. 

House Bill 141 is the latest effort by Rep. Mark Hart, R-Falmouth, to remove the state requirement for water utilities serving populations larger than 3,000 to add or adjust fluoride levels in drinking water systems to “protect the dental health of the people served.”

Hart, a lawmaker since 2017, was the only sponsor of making drinking water fluoridation optional when he first filed such legislation in 2018. The bill has gained Republican co-sponsors as it’s been filed several times over past legislative sessions. 

The House State Government Committee heard the bill for the first time ever Thursday and passed it 16-1. The bill now goes to the House floor for consideration. 

Republicans who voted for the bill and advocates for the legislation who joined Hart characterized the bill as providing “local control” for water utilities to choose whether or not to fluoridate their water supply. Those advocating for the bill included some representatives of water utilities for Morehead’s municipal utility, Irvine’s municipal utility and the Grayson County Water District

Some advocates for the bill questioned the efficacy of adding fluoride to tap water and its potential side effects. 

“Honestly, it is forced medication,” said Rep. William Lawrence, R-Maysville, a co-sponsor of HB 141. “Whether you’re for or against fluoride, this bill has nothing to do with that. This is a local control — let the local water districts decide what’s best for their district.” 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers community water fluoridation to be one of the 10 greatest public health achievements of the 20th century. The federal public health agency also has found no “convincing scientific evidence” linking fluoridation to “any potential adverse health effect or systemic disorder.” 

Groups representing dentists, oral health advocates and the dental insurance network Delta Dental strongly opposed the bill saying it would worsen tooth decay, particularly for children. Kentucky already ranks among the highest for the number of adults with no teeth, a condition called edentulism

Stephen Robertson, the executive director of the Kentucky Dental Association who opposed the bill, speaking with the Lantern after the committee approved it, said local water districts that choose to stop fluoridation under the bill would have to accept many children “would have fluoride removed from the drinking water.” 

“We have reached the point where it’s not about the science, it’s about the emotion,” Robertson said. “No matter what your position is, you can find something out there that’s going to validate your position.”

Jack Kall, a Louisville dentist and supporter of the bill, in a presentation to lawmakers cited line graphs from a 2016 magazine article by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health that questioned the efficacy and safety of the fluoridation of tap water. That post was strongly criticized by the American Dental Association saying that it relied on a report that was a “biased misinterpretation,” and the dean of the Harvard School of Dental Medicine at the time called for the article to be rescinded

Kall, citing the graphs, asserted countries that didn’t fluoridate their tap water supplies have had a similar decline in tooth decay rates as countries that did fluoridate their supplies. Kall, in an interview with the Lantern, also asserted fluoride can lower intelligence in children. A federal court case is litigating whether the mineral has an effect on brain development. 

“It’s a hot topic and science continues to evolve,” Kall said. “We should constantly be reviewing things.” 

Robertson said there are studies regarding fluoride that need to be verified and that improvements in nutrition and personal dental hygiene also could improve dental health in Kentucky. But fluoride in drinking water, he said, is a “program that works.” 

“Are we willing to take the risk of removing fluoride and seeing what happens?” Robertson said. 

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Liam Niemeyer
Liam Niemeyer

Liam covers government and policy in Kentucky and its impacts throughout the Commonwealth for the Kentucky Lantern. He most recently spent four years reporting award-winning stories for WKMS Public Radio in Murray.

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