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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Future of fluoride study for Spokane’s water remains uncertain

After years of debate, a report is expected in June that will summarize the feasibility and costs of adding fluoride to the city of Spokane’s water supply  (Christopher Anderson)

The Spokane City Council and Mayor Nadine Woodward are at an impasse over a grant-funded study about adding fluoride to the municipal water system.

The city has the money in hand to study fluoridation of its water, but Mayor Nadine Woodward has refused to spend it, citing concerns about strings attached to the grant and whether voters will be given a say before fluoride is added.

“From the administration’s perspective, this remains an open conversation that still needs to be revisited,” city spokeswoman Marlene Feist said in an email Wednesday.

The Spokane City Council – which accepted the grant to fund the study and design of a fluoridation system by a 6-to-1 vote in September – appears poised to play hardball.

The council abandoned a resolution Monday that would have committed to withholding funding for Woodward’s own projects until she signs off on a study of fluoride, but only because Council President Breean Beggs said the council’s message was made clear without the resolution.

The council could be forced to “go to the levers that we have,” Beggs said, which may mean to “slow down” funding for “other priorities that she might have.”

“I’m hoping we don’t have to do that, but that’s the impasse that we’re currently at,” Beggs said.

The study would be funded by a $4 million grant given to the city in September by the Arcora Foundation, the philanthropic arm of insurer Delta Dental. As a condition of the grant, the city would have to pay back the Arcora Foundation money if it ultimately decides not to add fluoride to its drinking water, an additive touted by federal health officials and dental health organizations as a way to mitigate tooth decay.

Woodward signed the grant agreement with Arcora earlier this year, but has delayed issuing a request for proposals to design and study a fluoridation system. Though she has not weighed in on whether she believes fluoridation is safe and effective, Woodward has said she wants to defer to voters.

“As I expressed earlier this fall, I continue to advocate for a thoughtful approach to evaluating the capital needs and cost of adding fluoride to the city’s water supply,” Woodward wrote in a Dec. 2 letter. “I remain concerned that any grant money spent on evaluating a fluoridation system would have to be repaid if we ultimately decide not to install a fluoridation system.”

Despite its conditions, the grant agreement is a win to fluoride proponents such as Beggs. He argued the city should study the feasibility and design of a fluoridation system regardless of whether or not it’s funded by a grant. But, thanks to the grant, there’s at least a chance the study will be paid for by a third party instead of city water customers.

Even those who want an advisory public vote, Beggs argued, should acknowledge that the study would provide important background for voters.

“Until we have the data, it’s kind of hard to have a vote,” Beggs said.

Councilwoman Lori Kinnear has not endorsed fluoridation but supports launching the study. She is among several council members who have said they want the issue to go to an advisory vote before a drop of city water is ever treated with fluoride.

“People really don’t know, nor do we (as council members), how much this will cost to implement – not just to stick fluoride in the water, but the whole mechanism that needs to go along with it,” Kinnear said. “It’s pointless to put something on the ballot without all of the information for the voters.”

But Woodward appears hesitant even to fund the study without hearing first from voters.

“I continue to hear from citizens who feel they were not given an appropriate chance to weigh in on such a large decision for our community, especially considering the controversy this issue has generated in years past,” Woodward wrote in her letter.

Kinnear pledged to continue to research the issue, not only for its potential health benefits, but other possible factors like fluoridation’s environmental impact.

Fluoride opponents believe it’s not only a health risk, but a waste of money.

“99% of the water isn’t even ingested, but literally goes down the drain through toilets, showers, car washes and other uses,” said Jeff Irish, chair of Safe Water Spokane, an organization formed this year to oppose fluoridation, in a statement this month.

City officials outlined the cost and timeline of fluoridation study in November, but Woodward has yet to greenlight it.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as numerous dental health providers and organizations, tout fluoride’s benefit as a safe means of slowing tooth decay.

Voters in Spokane have traditionally been unswayed by such arguments, voting against fluoridation on three separate occasions, most recently in 2000.

Although it frequently sparks public opposition in cities that seek to implement it, including Spokane, fluoridation is already mainstream. The CDC estimates that a vast majority of the American population drinks fluoridated water.

Opponents of fluoride question the safety and efficiency of fluoridating water, advocating instead for topical treatments – like the fluoride added to toothpaste.

Fluoride advocates point to numerous studies showing fluoride to be safe and have said low-income residents lack the same access to dental care and are disproportionately harmed by water without fluoride.