The three-year battle over fluoridation may be water under the bridge for the South Blount Utility District.
But maybe not.
The utility has agreed to resume putting fluoride in the water it supplies thousands of Blount County residents, a move which is supported by decades of public health research that has morphed into something akin to conventional wisdom.
But for Janet Lail, this isn’t good news, and she says the issue, despite what she and others say is strong-arming by the Blount County mayor, is not done yet.
Lail, widow of Isom Lail, former manager of the South Blount Utility District, has what she and her doctors have described as an ill-defined susceptibility to certain bad effects from fluoride. Not an allergy, per se, but the fluoride does things to her it just doesn’t do to most of the rest of the populous.
She does not know exactly what she will do. But she says she will not just sit and let her health deteriorate back to the level it was before the utility removed fluoride from the water in 2004.
On the other side of the controversy, members of the public health, political and dental communities are just as adamant that fluoride, a naturally occurring element recognized as a tooth-decay preventative, especially in children, be in South Blount’s water, just as it is in an overwhelming number of other public water systems in the nation.
All other public water providers in Blount County acknowledge fluoridating their water. There are even trace amounts in untreated well water.
In terms of public health successes, experts say fluoride is the best thing since the opposable thumb, ranking up there with the Salk vaccine, which virtually eradicated polio in the 1950s, and childhood immunizations that have a 95 percent prevention rate against smallpox.
That’s great, if you’re not Janet Lail. She says that fluoride’s effects on her weak kidneys and other conditions far outweigh anything it does for her teeth.
So the overarching question sort of comes down to: How can government and a quasi-governmental utility serve the best interests of the public, as well as those of individuals with unique, but legitimate, health concerns?
The question is tough, and its answers, elusive.
Until mid-2004, South Blount got its water from the Alcoa municipal system, which is fluoridated and gets its water from the Little River. In July 2004, South Blount opened its sparkling new water treatment plant on Calderwood Highway, getting water from receptors deep in Tellico Lake.
The water from Tellico, Isom Lail said at the time, is more pure raw than many systems’ water is after it is treated.
At that time, Janet Lail said, she was routinely finding herself in the hospital once a month for treatment of debilitating ailments for which there seemed to be no lasting remedy.
“Eventually my veins collapsed,” she said. “They surgically implanted ports,” which, she said, leaked. “My hair fell out twice.”
Her doctors, she said, finally identified fluoride as at least part of the problem.
Isom Lail, whose likability quotient was as large as he was, began doing research on fluoride as the time neared for the new plant to go online, his widow said.
He found that fluoride, in certain levels, is a toxin that can have serious adverse effects on health in an array of areas. But in controlled amounts it has the benefits, public health officials say, of strengthening teeth against decay, particularly in children whose teeth are still forming.
Philosophically, Isom Lail concluded that if fluoride could be applied topically or ingested from another source - and it could - there was no reason to treat everyone’s water with it, particularly if it has malevolent effects on some people.
So he, in concert with the three-member board of South Blount commissioners, decided not to include fluoride in the water when the new plant began operations.
The decision was such a departure from conventional thinking that the news media picked up on it, prompting both supporters and opponents of fluoride to begin expressing their strongly held views at the normally sedate and sparsely attended monthly public meetings of the commissioners.
The dental community condemned the elimination of fluoride and urged the board to reconsider. So did public health officials like Micky Roberts, director of Blount County’s Health Department.
Even members of the community at large, such as T-Rex Ogle, owner of a computer business, began attending the meetings to urge resumption of fluoridation. Other private citizens were just as adamant in affirming the decision not to fluoridate.
The utility held an informal survey of customers on the fluoridation question and concluded there was not enough outcry for them to change their minds. So they held firm for 3 ½ years, and the lack of action on either side of the issue lowered the controversy’s profile.
In the meantime, Janet Lail’s hospitalizations became bimonthly And then progressively less frequent. She and her doctors saw less of each other.
“It stabilized me,” she said. “My hair came back and was growing.”
She said it “did not cure me, it did not improve my damaged kidneys.” But, she said, she was able to sharply reduce the amount of pain medication she was taking.
“I got to live a life you healthy people know about,” Lail said, “that I knew nothing about.”
Indeed, she says today, she was able to resume the life that most of the rest of the county takes for granted, generally healthy, feeling good, more active and not tethered to the health care system night and day.
Also in that time, Janet lost - with breathtaking suddenness -- her big, smiling husband, Isom. In November of 2005, she went from having a phone conversation with him in early afternoon to being a widow in early evening at age 45.
Still, though alone, Janet Lail has made it through her grief, and even if she did face a future that holds uncertainty about things like health care coverage, she plodded on.
Then one of the South Blount commissioner positions came up for reappointment, followed by an announcement from County Mayor Jerry Cunningham that the fluoride is coming back.
A letter on the mayor’s stationery and posted on the Internet indicates that he made it clear to the board that any replacement commissioner he approved would have to be a fluoride supporter and that, further, failure to fluoridate the water was hampering efforts to bring new industry to the county.
Cunningham asked in the letter for confirmation that the three candidates offered him for approval supported fluoridation, and if that could not be provided, that three other names be submitted.
The reversal on fluoridation pivoted on that letter, according to Henry Durant, who succeeded Isom Lail as manager of the South Blount Utility District.
“We were no longer able to appoint board members,” Durant said, “without making sure they supported fluoridation. We thought that was not a proper position to make the board members take.”
So they changed direction and authorized fluoridating the water.
Durant called it a “fight between hardheaded people,” and said that the board preferred to expend its energy in growing its quality, customer base and service area rather than involve itself in a political battle. The fluoride will be back in the water around March 1, Durant said.
“There are too many things in Blount County that need to be done that require cooperation.”
Irrespective of how it came to pass, the dental health community and others are all but gleeful that the board decided to change its direction.
Roberts, of the Health Department, thanked both Cunningham and the utility, saying, “This is clearly in the best interest of the community, especially the children of this county, in reducing cavities.”
Dr. Drew Osborn, a pediatric dentist in Maryville and a leader in the Blount County Dental Society, said he is gratified by the board’s “change of heart.
“We all know from a tremendous amount of research that it has positive effects well beyond any other unfounded concerns.”
Fluoridation supporter Ogle, who has moved his computer business to Bradenton, Fla., said, “I think it’s great. It’s something that should have been done to begin with.” Bradenton, he adds, has fluoride in its water.
Dentist Dr. Jeff Eberting agreed.
“I knew this day was going to come when we were having the mayoral race. I contacted all candidates running for mayor, and Jerry was the only one who told me what I wanted to hear. Frankly, it happened much more quickly than I thought it was going to happen.”
Dr. James Curtiss said he was astounded when fluoride was taken out of the water.
“I did public health work in Morristown and was shocked by the amount of tooth decay and talked to my public health director, and he said fluoridation had been opposed in Morristown. That was an example of what decay was like in people who didn’t have fluoride in the water.”
Their enthusiasm is almost unbridled.
But for Janet Lail, not so much.
She is now facing the prospect of sliding back into a situation where her health is perpetually shaky or shelling out large bucks on a limited income for bottled water that she still will have to make sure does not come from a water system that fluoridates.
The only other option, she says, is a water system that can be installed in her home that uses a process known as reverse osmosis to remove the fluoride. But that, too, is pricey, with one being advertised on the Internet for $495.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said. “Jerry Cunningham is not putting me back in the hospital every month. I refuse to go back to that.”
She vows to keep waging the fluoride fight.
“It’s a frightening position to be put in.”