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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

As council nears fluoride vote, residents asked to weigh in at community forum

People wanting to testify about fluoridation pack the hearing room at the Spokane Regional Health District building in Spokane on April 22, 2004. City Council will host an online forum on Thursday about a new proposal to add fluoride to the city’s water system.  (CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON)

The Spokane City Council is barreling toward an initial vote on fluoridating the city’s water supply this week, but before it does so, those for and against the plan will be given an opportunity to offer their input.

The council will host a community forum featuring representatives of organizations on both sides of the debate at 6 p.m. on Thursday, just days before it is scheduled to vote on the issue.

As dental health proponents continue to push for immediate action, the City Council will consider adopting an emergency ordinance on Monday that would set in motion the complex process of adding fluoride to Spokane’s drinking water.

The vote, if it is held as scheduled, would abruptly cap decades of community debate over artificially increasing the level of fluoride in Spokane’s drinking water, a practice endorsed by numerous dental health experts and organizations as a way to prevent tooth decay.

Council approval would begin what could be a years long and multimillion-dollar process to build the infrastructure required to increase the amount of fluoride, a natural mineral, to the recommended level of 0.7 milligrams per liter of water.

But first, the council pledged to hear from all sides of the issue. Safe Water Spokane, an organization formed to resist fluoridation, has been invited to speak on Thursday, according to City Council President Breean Beggs.

Though it’s on the council’s Monday docket, many council members have already expressed concern about the haste with which they’ve approached the issue, the impact the decision will have on noncity residents who access the city’s drinking water, and the cost of implementing a fluoridation system.

“I’m very interested in this from a health perspective,” Councilwoman Candace Mumm said. “I wish there was a better solution so human beings don’t have to ingest fluoride, that we could just have it topical on the teeth and we wouldn’t all have to swallow it.”

Last month, Beggs invited representatives of Smile Spokane, a coalition of nonprofits and dental health advocates, to make its pitch during a study session. Proponents were invited to further outline their proposal to the council during a committee meeting on Monday.

The Arcora Foundation, which is funded by dental health insurer Delta Dental, has committed $3 million to building out the city’s fluoridation system. The remaining $1 million – a number based on a third-party consultant’s 2004 study, last updated in 2016 – will be raised privately, according to the advocates.

“Everyone benefits from fluoride,” Vanetta Abdellatif, Arcora Foundation’s CEO, told the council on Monday. “It will improve the health of Spokanites today and for generations to come.”

Public Works Director Scott Simmons warned the council Monday that implementing the systems necessary to fluoridate Spokane’s water would be complex.

The city does not disperse water from a single source, but taps into six wells with 32 pumps.

“Our system is not like every other system out there,” Simmons said.

The estimated cost of building a fluoridation system and the yearly cost to maintain it could deviate from the 2016 study’s estimates, Simmons said.

If the council approves fluoridation, Simmons said the city would first hire a third-party engineer to conduct a detailed engineering study.

Construction of the system and bringing it online could take four years or more, Simmons said.

Spokane voters have turned down proposals to add fluoride to the city’s drinking water on three occasions, most recently in 2000. This year, proponents are asking the council to make an administrative decision without input from voters.

Spokane is the largest city in Washington to not fluoridate its drinking water, which can reduce tooth decay by 25%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Fluoridation advocates say the COVID-19 pandemic has only highlighted the inequities inherent in the health care system, and that poor dental health disproportionately impacts people of color and the poor.

Opponents decry the addition of fluoride for a number of reasons. They question an individuals’ ability to consent to consuming the fluoride when it is added to the entire drinking supply and fear that the dosage can not be regulated.

Many opponents also question the scientific guidance of the CDC and numerous other health organizations, expressing concern about the toxicity of fluoride or claiming to have an allergy to the mineral.

Several council members have expressed interest in creating a system to obtain untreated water for those concerned about fluoride.

The virtual forum on Thursday will be moderated by the League of Women Voters.

People can sign up to testify from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. on Thursday. The forum begins at 6 p.m. and is online only, but can be viewed on City Cable 5.

There will be at least an hour of public comment, according to Beggs.