A Wichita lawmaker has introduced a bill that would require cities that fluoridate the water to notify users "that the latest science confirms that ingested fluoride lowers the I.Q. in children."
House Bill 2372 was offered by Rep. Steve Brunk, a Republican, who said he introduced the bill on behalf of Mark Gietzen, a conservative GOP activist and anti-abortion lobbyist also of Wichita.
But Brunk said he did not expect the bill to advance and that he had no interest in it himself.
"That was a constituent request," Brunk said. "As a courtesy, I gave him a bill introduction and told him that was as far as it goes. I'm not his champion of the cause," he said.
"I'm not aware of any interest in this bill at all (among fellow legislators). I'd be surprised if the (committee) chairman gives him a hearing."
Fluoridation has long been accepted by public health experts in the U.S. and elsewhere as an effective means to combat tooth decay, especially in children. Its use has been widespread among public water suppliers in the U.S. since the 1960s. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about 74 percent of the nation relies on fluoridated water supplies. The CDC has linked public fluoridation with an increase in the incidence of dental fluorisis, a condition that can cause tooth enamel to appear streaked but is not generally considered harmful to health.
Most research on the subject has shown municipal water fluoridation to be a safe and and effective practice. There are a few scientists who say their studies suggest otherwise, and that their findings have been marginalized by the broader scientific community.
Gietzen told KHI News Service he hoped to take advantage of the recent publicity surrounding Wichita's citywide vote on whether to fluoridate its public drinking water. Voters there rejected fluoridation, just as they did previously in 1978 and 1964. Wichita is among the few larger American cities that do not fluoridate public water supplies. The cities of Topeka, Lawrence, Manhattan and dozens of others in Kansas do add the CDC-recommended amount of fluoride to driking water. Many rural water districts also provide fluoridated water to their customers.
"The momentum of the Wichita fluoride debate (is) something we want to capitalize on," Gietzen said. "With everything — asbestos, lead, thalidomide, the drug we once thought was so good — when more modern science shows you that what you thought in the past was good and now you know it's not good, you need to put the brakes on it and stop harming people."
Gietzen cited a a 2012 study co-authored by a researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health that showed children in areas with high naturally occurring fluoride have significantly lower I.Q. scores than children in low-fluoride areas. He said it was that study that convinced him to vote against fluoridating Wichita's water.
"Eight months ago I didn't know how I was going to vote on the Wichita fluoride debate. I couldn't even spell fluoride, truth be known," Gietzen said. "If something opened your eyes and you realized you have knowledge of something other people are being harmed by and they didn't even know it, wouldn't you feel the obligation to at least let them know?"
The study by the Harvard researcher, however, mostly considered the effects of high levels of fluoride on brain development among children in China because that's where there are significant numbers of people exposed to high levels of fluoride, often from well water and not as the result of municipal fluoridation. The study's authors noted that it was difficult to find study subjects in other industrialized countries because children there aren't exposed to high fluoride levels in the water "even when fluoride is added to water supplies as a public health measure to reduce tooth decay."
Sixty officials from a variety of disciplines and from around the state gathered here today to grade Kansas' public health system by collectively answering a battery of 600 questions as part of the National Public Health Performance Standards Program.
Kansas is one of 23 states to conduct the evaluation and first did so in 2008, a year after the program was started by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Four years ago, however, only officials from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment participated, said Brenda Nickel, director of KDHE's Center for Performance Management.
"The intent at the time was to also conduct it with our external partners statewide. But in 2008, the recession was going on and that opportunity was never fully realized," she said. "What's going on here today with our external stateholders, I think is going to provide a richer report because we actually have those individuals with boots on the ground in communities, as well as state-level partners, who are helping answer these questions."
Participants split into three groups to each grade the state's public health system on 200 questions, such as:
• Does the state public health system commit financial resources to workforce development efforts?
• Does the system utilize the leadership of the state public health agency in planning and policy development?
• Does the system have the professional expertise to carry out effective health communications?
The quantity of questions to be answered in a single day left little time for discussion of each question before the group voted on a grade.
The pace of the evaluation helped keep the group focused and moving along, said participant Michelle Ponce, director of the Kansas Association of Local Health Departments.
"We don't have time to get caught up in the weeds or thinking through every single in and out — we have to limit ourselves to the big picture and stay focused on the larger system. It doesn't give you time to get mired down into who does what and who's responsibility exactly is it. We're focused on the system — what is everybody's responsibility, what do we do well, and what are the gaps," Ponce said.
The annual report of births, deaths and other vital statistics by the state health department is now available. The new data shows a decline in the Kansas birth rate to the lowest level since the record keeping began in 1912.
The abortion rate also continued to decline and reached the lowest level since 1971, which is when abortion reporting began.
The birth rate in 2011, according to the report, was 13.8 live births per 1,000 population.
There were 39,628 live births recorded, about 2 percent fewer than reported for 2010. The rate was slightly lower than the previous low of 13.9 births per 1,000 population in 1973.
Births to young mothers, those under age 20, were down 8.6 percent.
Among the other report findings:
• Cancer again topped heart disease as the leading cause of death.
• Injuries from accidents and pneumonia/influenza each rose one level in the ranking of top 10 causes of death, coming in at fourth and eighth respectively.
• There were 247 infant deaths in 2011, a decrease of 2.4 percent from the 253 deaths in 2010. Pregnancy associated maternal deaths increased to 24 in 2011 from 19 in 2010.
• The number of reported abortions fell from 8,373 in 2010 to 7,885 in 2011. The ratio was 99.6 abortions per 1,000 live births.
→ More Kansas vital stats from 2011 in the full report, available on khi.org.
The population of Stevens County is less than 5,800, but its health department has more than 7,000 patients, and it's out of space.
Many of those patients are so-called Low German Mennonites, or Mexican Mennonites, said Paula Rowden, administrator of the health department in the southwest corner of the state. They typically have come to Kansas from Mexico, looking for jobs in agriculture or livestock.
"They seem to be at the greatest risk. They're the ones that are utilizing the emergency room for medical care," Rowden said.
She said the Mennonites present a unique challenge because of their culturally restricted level of education.
"They don't typically educate children beyond sixth grade," Rowden said. "So you talk about people that really have difficulty comprehending complex health issues — this is a group that needs help."
According to a 2007 estimate by the Kansas Statewide Farmworker Health Program, there are likely 3,000 to 5,000 Low German Mennonites in southwest Kansas.
Rowden said what's needed are health education programs that address the education and language barriers. Examples would include classes that explain the importance of being vaccinated or how to manage chronic disease, such as diabetes or hypertension.
However, her 5,000-square-foot facility is out of room. "We certainly don't have enough space to provide all the services we would like to," Rowden said.
But by year's end, the health department will have twice the space thanks to a county-funded renovation project.
New space, more services
The $265,000 project to renovate an 11,000-square-foot building owned by the county is scheduled to start June 1.
The space being renovated for the health department is a soon-to-be-vacated 54-bed nursing home. On May 23, its clients will be moved to a new 80-bed nursing home.
The old nursing home has two wings, one of which is being renovated.
"We need this to capitalize on that prevention and health promotion piece that is so critical in people understanding how to take care of themselves," Rowden said.