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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Furor over fluoride hard to swallow

Ten years ago, a push to put fluoride in our water failed, barely, at the polls.

The forces of fluoridation vowed to keep up the fight.

Unfortunately, it’s the forces against fluoride who have kept fighting. And they’re winning, big time, using the same tools that flat-earthers drag out to deny global warming or argue for intelligent design: information that looks suspiciously like science.

The Sandpoint City Council heard a lot of that sciencelike information last week, before it voted to stop fluoridating its water. People argued that fluoride causes health problems, hurts children, makes the sky fall. A lot of these arguments are a click away on the Internet, but I’m not carrying that particular water here.

The world’s health organizations and most scientists line up squarely behind fluoridation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The surgeon general. The World Health Organization. The American Dental Association. The American Academy of Pediatrics. The state of Washington’s Health Department. On and on.

A number of surveys of scientific literature arrive at the same conclusion as this one, from the European Archives of Paediatric Dentistry, which analyzed 59 studies done worldwide between 2000 and 2008: “The results of the three reviews showed that water fluoridation is effective at reducing caries (cavities) in children and adults. With the exception of dental fluorosis, no association between adverse effects and water fluoridation has been established.”

Fluorosis causes white spots and streaks on teeth or, in rare and extreme cases, staining; it’s caused when young children ingest too much fluoride overall during key stages of tooth development. The CDC says the vast majority of cases are mild and occur in communities without fluoridated water, as well.

Of course, you’d have to be a dupe to listen to scientists – or the government – about science. What you ought to listen to are billboards. Like the one up right now on East Sprague: “Fluoridation is Public Health Quackery!”

See that? Big and loud. Exclamation points. That’s what works in politics. The small but determined forces against fluoridation in Spokane do not rest. They’re at every Board of Health meeting at the Spokane Regional Health District. And the board, made up of elected officials from the county and cities, is so cowed that its official position on the question is no position, firmed up during the heat of the debate 10 years ago.

Mike Allen, a former city councilman who served on the Health Board, thinks it’s time for another try at water fluoridation in Spokane.

“It makes sense, and the data are empirical,” he said. “The benefits are clearly shown, particularly for children and at-risk populations. … I believe we need to have a conversation about it where the science is expounded and not the voodoo science.”

Nearly three-quarters of Americans drink fluoridated water. Studies estimate that every dollar spent on water fluoridation saves $38 in dental costs later. Survey after survey shows that fluoridated water reduces dental decay in kids. Cheney and Pullman fluoridate their water, as does Fairchild Air Force Base.

“It’s in our air,” said Dr. Janine Johnson, a local dentist and supporter of fluoridation. “It’s in our water. It’s in the food we eat. It’s in hot dogs. It’s in chicken nuggets. Fluoride is just a mineral.”

Johnson faults the local media for failing to report on the matter clearly – for allowing controversy to obscure the science. That’s not my view of the coverage, but it’s doubtlessly true that in the worlds of politics and media, noise often cancels thoughtfulness.

But there is another problem at work here. The pro-fluoride fight ended. I can understand the desire not to throw yourself into a losing battle, but is this a losing battle?

Spokane voters have rejected fluoride three times. Each vote – in 1969, 1984 and 2000 – inched closer to passage. In 2000, Proposition 1 failed by 2 percentage points.

Dr. Kim Thorburn, who was fired four years ago as the county’s health officer after clashing with the board, notes that a lot of health professionals are working to improve dental health – including Johnson and the Oral Health Coalition, a district-led endeavor. But she said the Health Board’s neutrality is an albatross around the neck of any effort to take this to the voters again.

“If you can’t say, ‘Your public health agency strongly endorses this,’ it makes it hard,” she said. “I wish that Spokane would get over the hump.”

In the meantime, dental health here suffers. In the five years after the vote failed, the incidence of dental decay in the county’s young children went from 49 percent to 62 percent, state figures show.

I tried to call the woman who posted the billboard, Rose Marie Waldram. She’s a steady voice of opposition to water fluoridation, and she says she has an allergy to fluoride.

She didn’t return my calls. But her billboard is out there, shouting every day at the drivers passing by on East Sprague.

Somebody ought to talk back.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or