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Fluoride foes, proponents make pitches in community forum

Aug. 27, 2020 Updated Thu., Aug. 27, 2020 at 8:44 p.m.

The Spokane City Council hosted a virtual forum Thursday about a proposal to add fluoride to the city's water supply. (Adam Shanks / The Spokesman-Review)
The Spokane City Council hosted a virtual forum Thursday about a proposal to add fluoride to the city's water supply. (Adam Shanks / The Spokesman-Review)

As proponents continued their push for fluoridation of Spokane’s water, skeptics pleaded with the City Council to pause on Wednesday.

Approaching a potential vote on adding fluoride to the city’s water supply, the council hosted an online community forum and heard from impassioned advocates on both sides of a dental-health debate that has lingered in Spokane for decades.

The council also heard from representatives of the Department of Health’s Office of Drinking Water, who were invited to bring a neutral perspective on the issue and detail the technical process of supplementing the drinking water supply with fluoride. The Department of Health would regulate the city’s fluoridation systems.

Though held virtually, 170 people signed up to testify during the forum hosted by the League of Women Voters, which was delayed by about 15 minutes due to technical issues.

Spokane voters have, on three occasions, turned down proposals to fluoridate the city’s water, most recently in 2000.

Rather than take another crack at the ballot, advocates for fluoridation – coalesced under a network of nonprofits and organizations called Smile Spokane – have asked the City Council to adopt fluoridation directly into city law in 2020.

The fluoridation of drinking water is endorsed by numerous dental health professionals and organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which states that it is a safe way to reduce tooth decay by 25% in children and adults.

Fluoridation’s proponents have leaned on the COVID-19 pandemic in making their case for action to improve public health, arguing that the underprivileged people already suffering from poor dental health lost access to care as dentist’s offices and clinics shuttered during the pandemic.

Dr. Kurt Ferre, a retired dentist representing the American Fluoridation Society, argued that dental health is tied to overall health, and that healthy children are better learners.

“We can’t drill out of this mess, there’s just too many holes to fill,” Ferre said.

“Prevention is key.”

But the numerous opponents to fluoridating Spokane’s water cry foul at the insertion of an additive into city’s entire water supply and, despite the assurances of organizations like the American Dental Association, fear it is unsafe and impossible to regulate an individual’s dosage.

Topical fluoride, like that in some toothpaste, is supported by Safe Water Spokane, an anti-fluoridation organization, according to Chairman Jeff Irish.

“It’s your choice, as it should be, but once you’ve put it in the water, you’ve lost that choice,” Irish said.

Proponents boasted that the benefits of fluoride require no change in personal behavior when it’s added directly to water.

Fluoridation opponents questioned the multimillion-dollar cost of implementing the system, particularly during the coronavirus-weakened economy, but proponents argued it’s cost-efficient and saves dental health costs.

Opponents also doubted that the city could feasibly make an alternative source of untreated water available to those who wish to avoid fluoride.

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward has echoed calls to let voters, not council, decide the issue, posting on her Facebook page this week that she believes the issue should be on the ballot.

If council adopts the proposed emergency ordinance, Woodward would not have the power to veto it.

The council was tentatively scheduled to vote on the issue, which only resurfaced last month, at its meeting on Monday – a hasty timeline several council members quickly expressed concerns about.

The vote is currently slated for Sept. 14.

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