First 5 LA Ignores Requests for Transparency in County Fluoridation Grants

A request by Coastal Citizens for Safe Drinking Water, a coalition of 15 local groups, to be heard on First 5 LA’s March 13 agenda has gone unanswered with the date for the First 5 LA meeting now past and the date for fluoridation contracts to be issued growing near, the group charged in a press release. The group sought the agenda time to propose a requirement that any grants of funding to water districts in Los Angeles County for purposes of fluoridation include requirements for accountability and transparency from manufacturers of the chemicals actually used in the process. The group specifically urged that manufacturers of hydrofluorosilicic acid used to fluoridate community water supplies be required to provide the County with copies of all documentation and test reports submitted to the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) to earn certification of their product, as a condition of County funding.

On a brighter note, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, former Chair of First 5 LA, added his personal endorsement to the citizen groups’ request in a letter dated March 7.

Late last year, amidst the uproar of citizens in Southern California learning that they were about to begin receiving water from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) containing hydrofluorosilicic acid, a toxic and highly corrosive by-product of the fertilizer manufacturing industry, the County’s First 5 LA Commission, then under Yaroslavsky’s chairmanship, announced its decision to award $20 million in grants to fund fluoridation projects in water districts throughout Los Angeles County. The County’s First 5 LA Commission is the recipient and distributor of the 50-cent per pack tobacco tax collected in the County; its mission is to benefit children five years of age and younger.

The First 5 grants would enable those water districts in the County who do not receive their water from MWD to follow suit in fluoridating their public water supplies. Indeed, First 5’s “gift” of funds would trigger a state requirement to fluoridate a number of municipal water districts that until now have chosen to forgo fluoridation.

Coastal Citizens for Safe Drinking Water vocally opposed the First 5 grant, as well as the fluoridation of Topanga and Malibu water by MWD. The group, pointing to a number of recent scientific studies, believes that the hydrofluorosilicic acid used to fluoridate is toxic and potentially carcinogenic, and is particularly concerned that neither MWD nor any of the proponents of fluoridation can point to a single long-term, peer-reviewed toxicological study demonstrating the safety and efficacy of the chemical. The production of hydrofluorosilic acid, which comes from the smokestacks of the phosphate fertilizer industry, is unregulated by any federal agency; chemically, the acid is different from the calcium and sodium fluorides used in toothpaste and dental sealants which are produced under pharmaceutical conditions and regulated by the federal Food and Drug Administration. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has conceded there are no toxicological studies on the health and behavioral effects from continued use of the chemical, safe drinking water activists contend. Indeed, Ed Dymally, a spokesman for MWD, admitted to the Messenger that no such study exists, but maintained that he is not required to have one, but can rely instead on the manufacturers’ representations concerning the certification of their products by NSF, a manufacturing trade association, as safe and effective.

Safe drinking water activists counter that a long-term toxicological study of safety is a minimum prerequisite for bona fide certification of the chemical as compliant with American National Standards Institute (ANSI)/NSF Standard 60, as required under California law before the product can be added to public drinking water. Without proof of such studies, they consider NSF certification a sham.

Though Coastal Citizens would like to see fluoridation halted outright, it believes that its current request is a modest and reasonable interim step, one that should be acceptable to fluoridation proponents and opponents alike: Require a statement of accountability for safety and effectiveness from the manufacturer; produce the toxicological studies on the chronic health effects of the actual substance being used to fluoridate; and make the manufacturer’s documents that were submitted to meet State-adopted standards accessible to the public, they demand.

The question of just who is safeguarding the purity of public drinking water—and how well they are performing that function—drew heightened attention earlier this month when the Associated Press (AP) released the results of a study documenting the presence of multiple pharmaceuticals—including, but not limited to, antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones—in the public drinking supplies of at least 41 million Americans. The 51 communities in which pharmaceutical contamination of the water supply was documented specifically included both Northern and Southern California, according to the report released March 9.

“To be sure, the concentrations of these pharmaceuticals are tiny, measured in quantities of parts per billion or trillion, far below the levels of a medical dose. Also, utilities insist their water is safe,” wrote Jeff Donn, Martha Mendoza and Justin Pritchard in an article in the Mercury News

, reporting the results of the AP’s five-month probe. “But the presence of so many prescription drugs—and over-the-counter medicines like acetaminophen and ibuprofen—in so much of our drinking water is heightening worries among scientists of long-term consequences to human health.” Moreover, the article continued, “Water providers rarely disclose results of prescription screenings, unless pressed, the AP found. For example, the head of a group representing major California suppliers said the public ‘doesn’t know how to interpret the information’ and might be unduly alarmed.”

The same resistance to public disclosure prevails in the fluoridation arena where manufacturers and water suppliers want consumers to be content with blanket assertions that the process “has been proven safe and effective for more than 50 years.” Yet when pressed for the scientific proof of these assertions, the answers are not forthcoming. Compare, for example, the fanfare with which MWD touted its recent selection as the world’s “best tasting” public water, with the dearth of substantive information (as opposed to generic assurances) that has greeted the pharmaceutical contamination studies or requests to revisit the safety of fluoridation chemicals in light of recent scientific studies.

The problem of transparency and accountability came to a head earlier this year when Yaroslavsky, responding to complaints from the Coastal Citizens group, asked County Counsel to obtain copies of the documents relied on by NSF in issuing the safety certifications for the fluorosilicic acid products being used in Topanga-Malibu water supplies. NSF refused to comply, stating that the documents remained the property of the manufacturers and were not subject to public disclosure.

Basically, that left not only private citizens but also public water officials (in his capacity as a County Supervisor, Yaroslavsky is responsible for the purity of the water delivered by Local Water District 29, which serves Topanga and Malibu) completely in the dark. In a classic case of the proverbial fox being left to guard the henhouse, ever since the EPA abdicated its role of regulating water additives in the late 1970s, NSF, a private trade association of the chemical manufacturing industry, has assumed the role of certifying the safety and efficacy of such products, including fluorosilicic acids, certifications for which NSF charges the manufacturers hefty fees. (The EPA relinquished its regulatory function with respect to water additives after the union representing scientists and other professionals working for the EPA publicly challenged the safety of fluoridation at the levels specified by the agency, leading in turn to a lawsuit and Congressional hearings on the matter.)

Once Yaroslavsky became aware of the situation, he backed the safe drinking water advocates’ demand for public access to the documents on which NSF relies in support of its certifications, and sent a letter to MWD requesting that they make the manufacturer’s disclosure of those documents and test results a condition of any future fluoridation contracts. This submission, in turn, would render the documents subject to the California Public Records Act, said Yaroslavsky.

In his March 7 response to the Coastal Citizens group, Yaroslavsky forwarded MWD’s reply. After a long paragraph reciting the testing and certification process that MWD is required to comply with under state and federal regulations—a paragraph that seems to miss the point that it is precisely proof of NSF’s compliance with those regulations in issuing certifications, rather than the certifications themselves, that the public wishes to see—MWD’s General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger concludes, “In all cases, FSA (fluorosilicic acid) shall be certified at the point of use at Metropolitan’s facilities. We will consider your request regarding certification testing documentation in future contracts.”

Yaroslavsky’s transmittal letter cites a number of opportunities for MWD to adopt a disclosure requirement in the near future. MWD’s current contracts for hydrofluorosilic acid began on September 30, 2007, and are effective for one year, with three possible one-year extensions. “The MWD will begin evaluating whether or not to extend the contracts beginning in June of each year. It will be possible in each year to add the requirement for production of documents to the contracts, if both MWD and the contractor agree,” Yaroslavsky wrote to Coastal Citizens, adding, “In any event, MWD will begin a search for new contractors in spring of 2011 and could insert this requirement into the bid specifications at that time.” Kightlinger’s letter did not mention any of these possibilities to amend the contracts to require disclosure, which led spokespeople for the Coastal Citizens group to characterize his position as “more stonewalling.”

“Regardless if you are for fluoridation, or against fluoridation,” stated Ben Allanoff, chair of the Topanga Creek Watershed Committee, one of the 15 local groups that joined to form Coastal Citizens for Safe Drinking Water, “the fact that there are continual roadblocks to providing a statement of accountability, and to producing the actual documents that can prove that the manufacturers have conformed to the standards required by California law, has to be worrisome to everyone who drinks this water.”

“The Chair of MWD has only stated that he would ‘consider’ [Yaroslavsky’s] request [to mandate disclosure],” Allanoff added. “Meanwhile we are all drinking and bathing in fluoridated water that no agency or other entity will guarantee as safe.”

In addition to pressing MWD to adopt a disclosure requirement, Coastal Citizens asked Yaroslavsky to implement a similar policy as a condition of County grants and contracts for fluoridation, and in particular, of the $20 million in grants already earmarked by First 5 for fluoridation. The coalition also sent a request to the First 5 board on January 27, asking to be placed on the agenda to discuss the proposed requirement. Though addressed to the First 5 board as a whole, the letter was mistakenly directed to Yaroslavsky as chair of First 5. In fact, that position had in the interim rotated to Supervisor Yvonne Braithwaite Burke along with the chair of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors. The citizens’ group reiterated its request in a second letter addressed to Burke and the entire First 5 board on March 1, 2008, requesting the specific agenda date of March 13. But Coastal Citizens say their request was never answered, despite numerous attempts by the coalition to secure a date to appear.

Yaroslavsky, who no longer serves on the First 5 board, but who gets to appoint a representative of his County district to the board, said in his March 7 letter to Coastal Citizens that he had forwarded the group’s request to Supervisor Burke. In an attached letter, also dated March 7, addressed to Burke, Yaroslavsky added his own endorsement of the Coastal Citizens proposal, writing, “I believe it would be appropriate for First Five L.A. to adopt the same (disclosure) approach in its fluoridation grant program.” Citing the timetable of the bid process for the grants, Yaroslavsky continued, “Given this timing it should be possible to require grantees to ensure that their suppliers of fluorosilicic acid submit copies of all documents submitted to NSF to earn certification, as well as copies of their latest NSF fluorosilicic acid test reports, so that they can be made available for public review. I hope you will consider this request and add this requirement to your fluoridation grant program. By doing so you will ensure that the public has the greatest opportunity to be informed about the purity of the fluoridation product.”

Coastal Citizens considers Yaroslavsky’s endorsement of their proposal another victory in their incremental effort to obtain disclosure and accountability on the introduction of toxic chemicals into the public drinking supply. However, the news, which they first learned from Yaroslavsky’s letter, that the process of requests for proposals (RFP) to grant funds is already ongoing, with decisions looming on the near horizon, without the group being given an opportunity to be heard, has members of the local coalition fuming.

“I don’t see how this passes anyone’s smell test,” said Bob Jason, an attorney and another spokesman for Coastal Citizens for Safe Drinking Water.