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Decades After Chewing It Over, California Close To Fluoridation

After more than 40 years of debate that has sometimes veered toward obsession, Californians are closer than ever to having fluoridated water flowing from their faucets.

Assemblywoman Jackie Speier may succeed in selling lawmakers on the idea that fluoridation is a safe, cheap way to save Californians’ children at least $385 million in dental repair.

“I just see it as a sound public health measure. The children of this state deserve a fighting chance to keep their teeth through out their lifetime,” said the Burlingame Democrat. Her bill that would require fluoridation of water systems serving more than 10,000 customers won relatively easy passage in the Assembly in June.

Despite widespread support from medical authorities and 50 years of evidence that fluoride safely fights cavities, Speier’s bill faces determined opposition from longtime fluoridation foes as it comes before the Senate Appropriations Committee for hearings Wednesday. If it clears the committee, the bill could gain final approval from the Senate within two weeks.

But not if Maureen Jones of San Jose has her way. As a member of the Safe Water Coalition, she’s working hard to convince lawmakers that fluoridation is tantamount to poisoning the water supply. She and fellow critics cite studies saying that fluoride contributes to a range of health woes, including hip fractures, cancer, kidney and brain damage. And they don’t think it prevents tooth decay.

Jones acknowledged that fluoride is one of the most abundant natural compounds on earth, occurring in air, soil, plants, animals. But she said the fluoride used in drinking water is dangerous, “toxic waste from the Florida phosphate fertilizer industry that’s disposed of in various cities’ water systems.”

“I don’t think think we have to be Florida’s toxic dump,” Jones added.

Fears like these are why only 17 percent of California’s water is fluoridated - the 48th lowest state ranking. Nationwide 145 million Americans - 62 percent - have fluoridated water. More than half the 150 largest U.S. cities without fluoridated water are in the Golden State, including most of San Jose, Los Angeles, San Diego, Sacramento and Santa Cruz.

During the Cold War, opponents reactionaries called fluoridation a communist plot to brain-wash Americans. Some civil libertarians have opposed it as government intrusion into individual freedom of choice. And a dedicated band of opponents says fluoridation is tantamount to poisoning the water supply. Speier hopes to change that by presenting “unquestionable medical experts” from the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to testify about the safety and effectiveness of fluoride.

“Every health care and medical entity in this state recognizes and supports the use of fluoride,” Speier said. Indeed, fluoridation has been championed by several U.S. surgeon generals, the National Cancer Institute and the American Dental Association. The U.S. Public Health Service’s Healthy People 2000 Initiative has set a goal that 75 percent of the U.S. population will served by fluoridated water systems by the decade’s end.

“The overwhelming public health benefits of fluoride have been known for almost 50 years,” Dr. Bernard M. Wagner, a toxicologist and pathology professor, told the Mercury News recently. He headed a 1993 National Research Council study that found no evidence of fluoridation hazard.” Those who claim that there are risks to fluoride in water have to prove it. And the proof is not there.”

Speier got lawmakers’ attention by arguing that all Californians have to lose with fluoridation is costly dental bills.

Studies show that fluoridation can cut tooth decay rates by 60 percent. The California Dental Association estimates that every $1 spent on water fluoridation will save Californians about $140 in dental repair.

And Speier stressed that fluoridating California water systems will cost an estimated $35 million in initial equipment and $7 million a year, while the state DentiCal program pays $400 million annually to repair the cavities of poor children and adults. Just preventing one cavity in each school-age child will save Californians $385 million.

“This would be an outstanding opportunity to rid our children of tooth decay for very little expense,” Speier said. “It’s mind-boggling it’s so cheap to do this.”

Water agencies have been wary of supporting an issue that triggers such impassioned opposition. But Speier appears to be succeeding in getting them to drop their opposition, largely because the bill states that funding for fluoridation will be paid for by state or federal money, or foundation grants. But water agencies - and consumers - won’t have to pay for it through higher rates.

“We think fluoridation should be a local decision, but I think we’re going to be pragmatic,” said Dan Smith, chief lobbyist for the Association of California Water Agencies, which represents utilities who deliver 90 percent of the state’s water. “If it’s mandated, we want to make sure that it’s workable and not something that costs our rate-payers.”

Smith said the public water agencies are seeking some form of liability protection in the law, because they fear lawsuits from fluoride opponents. They’re also seeking exemption from added environmental reviews of the state-mandated fluoridation program.

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