LYERLY, Ga. — Outside Sam's Family Grocery last week, a group of men in ball caps, big beards and overalls contemplated the intersection of scientific evidence and public opinion.
They were asked a question: If people are afraid of fluoride in their water, should the government stop supplying it?
"Bull," said William Anderson, a Lyerly councilman back in the 1980s who supports fluoridation. "That's just government doin' too much. [People] oughta let it go."
Sitting next to him on a bench, Mike Short nodded.
"It made me go bald and talk slow," he said, removing his hat and rubbing his scalp, "but that's it."
The men hooted. But standing next to them, Daniel Wyatt offered a dissenting opinion: "Fluoride's poison."
Wyatt was the mayor of Lyerly three decades ago. His son, Josh, is the mayor now. Earlier this year, at Josh Wyatt's behest, the Lyerly Town Council agreed to ask citizens whether the city should stop adding fluoride to the water.
To put a binding referendum on the ballot this November, 10 percent of registered voters must sign a petition. In this town, that means the council needs 22 signatures.
Josh Wyatt said Thursday that 26 people have already signed, though he noticed the names of a couple of people who live outside the town limits. Nevertheless, he's confident he will draw enough support to put the question to a vote.
Decades of debate
Even though the established scientific community has supported the fluoridation of water for decades, debate about its merits has raged on across the country in towns like Lyerly. Some critics say it's a waste of money; unhealthy, even. Others have tried to link fluoridation to communists and Nazis.
But Josh Wyatt isn't a small-town conspiracy theorist with too much power. He's earnest about health. He watches documentaries. He grows his own tomatoes, potatoes and peppers. He raises free-range chickens.
His opposition to fluoridation is not the result of naiveté. It's the opposite, something relatable for anyone with an Internet connection: In a sea of information, he is drowning. He admits this.
"The groups that advocate for fluoride, they've got information saying it's good," he said. "The groups against it, they've got information saying it's bad. One group says they have a study that proves this. The other group finds something wrong with that study."
Wyatt said he considered placing the issue on a ballot about three months ago, when a representative from the Georgia Rural Water Association visited him.
He said the representative gave him an email from Stuart Cooper, a national anti-fluoridation advocate, explaining how Georgia citizens can vote to stop fluoridation in their municipalities. Cooper sent the GRWA representative that email in 2011.
Wyatt said he doesn't know why the representative gave him this 4-year-old message. The representative and Cooper did not return calls and emails Friday afternoon.
Benefit or bane?
Georgia state officials began adding fluoride, a natural compound, to public water utilities in 1951 after scientific studies showed that, given in small amounts, it strengthened teeth and protected them from decay. This is especially useful in poor communities. In 2012, the last time the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention measured it, 97 percent of people in Georgia had access to fluoridated water.
Sixty years later, Cooper's group, the Fluoride Action Network, says fluoridation is an "outdated, unnecessary and dangerous relic."
They point out that many European countries don't fluoridate their water, but the CDC says that is misleading. Many of those countries — including Austria, France and Germany — simply use a different form of fluoridation, said Kip Duchon, the CDC's national fluoridation engineer.
The Fluoride Action Network also points out that ingesting the compound can give children fluorosis, a staining of the teeth that could suggest bones are becoming brittle. The most recent study showed 40 percent of children have fluorosis.
But the CDC says this, too, is misleading. Of all the children in the study, less than 1 percent experienced severe fluorosis, the type that would suggest a bone-strength deficiency. Most cases were mild, a small, spotted stain.
"We're balancing that against tooth decay, which is a disease," said Linda Orgain, a spokeswoman for the CDC's Division of Oral Health.
Since 2010, according to the Fluoride Action Network, 176 communities have removed fluoride from their water, including five this year. Webster County, Ga., resident voted to remove it in November. Board of Commissioners Chairman George Moore said he and others in the community of 2,800 believed the fluoride damaged the bones of their toddlers and elderly residents.
Citizens will decide
In Lyerly, Wyatt said ending fluoridation will also save the town money. The town spends about $2,600 on pumping the compound into the water every year. Add in the man-hours, and the mayor believes annual spending could hit about $5,000.
He said that is about 1.5 percent of the water department's $340,000 budget.
But more than the cost, his objection is philosophical. He doesn't believe the government should give what he considers a drug to all of its citizens.
"Think if we said we were going to start putting ibuprofen in the water," he said. "Or vaccines."
He knows that most scientists support it. In addition to the CDC, the American Dental Association, the Georgia Dental Association and the U.S. Public Health Department consider fluoridation an achievement. The Environmental Protection Agency regulates the process.
But Wyatt has also heard from the critics, and he believes both voices are equal. He said residents have complained about fluoride, too. And if they don't want it, from his perspective, that's more important than what trained scientists and researchers believe.
"I have to see these people every day," he said. "It's a small town. Within a week, I can probably run into all the citizens if I'm out. I think it's my job as mayor to listen to them and see that their wishes are done."
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at tjett@times freepress.com or at 423-757-6476.