Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Culture: Desert Water

A glass of ice water was prepared for consumption in Kennewick, Washington on 5-January-2009

KENNEWICK, WASHINGTON - When I was growing up, one of the markers of visiting my grandparents here in Kennewick, Washington or my great aunt and uncle in Las Vegas, Nevada was the taste of the tap water in those locations. I came to call this "harsh" tasting and "dry" feeling fluid "desert water," as contrasted with the "wetter" urban water that I encountered at home and seemingly most other places while traveling.

Of course, what I was actually observing was that "desert" water was not fluoridated, while the water that I was used to from the Seattle, Washington watershed was fluoridated. Seattle had voted to include fluoride in its water in 1968, part of a trend at the time in which electorates were asked to vote on whether they wanted the perceived cavity-fighting benefit of fluoridated water. Seattle was actually relatively late to adopt the practice, which was recommended by the U.S. Public Health Service in 1951.

There is a long-standing claim that the fluoridation process does not change the taste, flavor, or smell of water. Strictly speaking, this may be true--pure water, after all, should have no taste, flavor, or smell; these properties come from things dissolved in the water, and dissolving the fluoride ion in and of itself--whether it came from sodium fluoride or a later-developed source such as fluorosilicic acid--should not perceptibly change any of those properties. Likely, it was other aspects of the treatment process used in fluoridation, perhaps mild chlorination to control bacterial spread or phosphate to reduce the dissolving of lead pipes that actually led to the observable changes. In any event, there was a perceptible difference.

Despite no high-quality studies showing any ill effects of fluoridation except for minor issues over-fluoridation of small children's teeth, the practice continues to be controversial to this day. Conspiracy theories abound, with some purported links to various cancers perhaps deserving of thorough studies that have yet to be done. In any event, there are still significant areas without fluoridation, including much of Nevada. In 2001, Clark County which includes Las Vegas did to fluoridate its water in response to a legislative action, so my more recent visits to the city did involve fluoridated water.

However, Kennewick continues to reject fluoridation, most recently a city council vote in 2002. So, on this visit, I once again have been drinking "desert water."

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