Humboldt’s water stirs memories

Shortly after World War II, my brother Scott took his portion of the GI Bill of Rights and enrolled at the University of Kansas to study chemistry. He moved from the University of Kansas to the California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech) where he completed his Ph.D. and then moved to Delft University in Holland to take a year of additional study.
Scott moved from Delft to the Dow Chemical Co. where he was on the research team that developed Styrofoam — which made him instrumental in littering America’s roadsides with soft drink containers that refuse to decompose. After some years with Dow, he decided that university life suited him better and began teaching chemical engineering at the University of California at Berkeley. Officially retired at 81, he continues to do research there three mornings a week.
We spent last week together in Rocky Mountain National Park. A copy of the Register announcing that the people of Humboldt would decide with mail-in ballots whether or not to flouridate Humboldt’s city water caught his attention.
The news story brought back memories. While at KU he worked for the Iola city water department during the summer to supplement the GI Bill monthly stipend and learn at a practical level. Perhaps that was in 1947, or close. One day the plant superintendent handed him an article reporting on the growing national trend to flouridate city water supplies because dentists and other scientists had discovered that those who lived in regions where water supplies contained a higher than average amount of natural flouride had an unusually low number of dental caries (cavities).
Look into this, his boss asked, and tell me what you think.
Scott did as he was told, read the available literature and reported that flouridating Iola’s city water seemed to offer a risk-free benefit at a low cost to the city. Flouridation began soon thereafter, he recalled.

AS HUMBOLDT citizens know very well, the findings of mainstream science on flouridation have been rejected by some. The naysayers persuaded the Humboldt City Council to rescind a decision to flouridate; the council then decided to let the citizens evaluate this bit of dental and chemical science by mail-in ballot.
Scott was first surprised — “there is no bit of public health science more settled,” he mused — and then expressed relief.
“All the people of Humboldt need to do is look at their neighbors,” he said. “Iola has flouridated its water for over 50 years. All of its citizens who drink water from the public system have been drinking flouridated water. Probably a majority of Iolans have done so all of their lives. The people of Humboldt looking for reliable information about flouridation need only ask any Iola physician if flouridation has caused any health problems for Iolans over the past half century — and ask any Iola dentist if Iolans have benefited by having fewer cavaties and keeping most of their teeth in their heads well into their senior years.”
At this point in the conversation, Scott, a normally placid man, was talking faster and a little louder. He pointed out that flouridation was strongly supported by the American Dental Association and wondered aloud if dentists would be likely to support flouridation which cuts way back on the number of teeth dentists must fill or pull — and thus cuts way back on their income — unless they had the public good in mind rather than their own pocketbooks.
Flouridation makes sense to dentists, we agreed, for the same reason that washing hands makes sense to family doctors. Ah, but that analogy only carries weight for those who accept the germ theory.
Then the front porch conversation shifted gears and focused on the never-changing beauty of the front range of the Rocky Mountains in Moraine Park, Colorado. Think of this, we said, if you ignore the highway, the cars, the yellow-slickered tourists on that string of horses, those mountains look the same today as they did a mllion years ago. A soothing peace returned.

— Emerson Lynn, jr.