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Saturday, September 19, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane City Council accepts grant to pay for fluoridation

UPDATED: Tue., Sept. 15, 2020

The Spokane City Council has voted to study adding fluoride to drinking water.  (Christopher Anderson)
The Spokane City Council has voted to study adding fluoride to drinking water. (Christopher Anderson)

The Spokane City Council stopped short of ordering the city to add fluoride to its water on Monday, but accepted a grant that sets the city on the path toward fluoridation.

The council indefinitely deferred a vote on an emergency ordinance that would require the city supplement its water supply with fluoride.

Later Monday, it accepted a recently-revised grant agreement with the Arcora Foundation that would help fund the city’s study and implementation of a potential fluoridation system.

The grant agreement represented a sort of half-victory for proponents of fluoridation, lining up the funds for its study in Spokane but not immediately ordering its implementation. 

Fluoride opponents warned that the grant agreement was the clear first step toward adding fluoride to the city’s water. But it also left them with hope that the city could explore the logistics and cost of adding fluoride to the water and ultimately decide not to.

The council’s debate centered on whether or not the grant agreement locked the city into fluoridation. 

Several council members said the agreement allows the city the time and resources to obtain additional information about fluoridation before committing to it, and puts the city on the path to an advisory vote by the public. 

“If we decide this is not for us, we can stop it at any time,” said City Councilwoman Lori Kinnear said.

City Council President Breean Beggs agreed. 

“It’s a path we can go off if it’s too expensive or the science changes, at minimal cost to us,” Beggs said. 

Councilman Michael Cathcart was the only member to vote against the grant agreement. 

“If we accept this grant, we are locking ourselves into, essentially, fluoridation, and we’re bypassing the will of the voters,” Cathcart said.

The Arcora Foundation is the philanthropic effort of dental health insurer Delta Dental.

Arcora offered the city $3 million, along with $1 million raised by Better Health Together, to defray the costs of adding fluoride to the water.

The 20-year agreement received the scrutiny of city attorneys and was lined with stipulations.

The grant is contingent upon “optimal fluoridation, in accordance with all applicable federal, state and local requirements.” 

If the city abandons fluoridation before the 20-year agreement expires, it must pay back Arcora any unspent grant money in full and a prorated amount of the money it’s already spent – 5% for each year “less than 20 years of operation.”

Cathcart attempted to indefinitely defer a vote on the grant agreement, but failed to win the support of any other council members.

Cathcart said after weeks of studying the issue, “I have barely scratched the surface of the information that is out there.” If fluoridation is implemented, Cathcart said he may personally invest in a reverse osmosis system to remove fluoride from his drinking water. But he noted many people in his district would not have the resources to do the same.

Councilwoman Karen Stratton was raised in Spokane and lamented the dental bills she’s racked up because of it. Though fluoridation has long been discussed, Stratton said “we’ve done nothing.”

“I’m going to look at this as a public health issue and I’m going to stand up and say somebody’s got to make some decisions here and we need to do something,” Stratton said. 

As a City Council member, Betsy Wilkerson said she could not impact Spokanites’ diet, their genetics, or their lifestyle. But she could accept this grant, and her decision to support it came down to research, she said. 

“I trust the people  who live in this community – the medical community, the education community, the communities of color, the people that are my neighbors that live in this city, that will be drinking the water with me,” Wilkerson said.

Without commenting on the scientific legitimacy and safety of fluoride as a means to prevent tooth decay, Mayor Nadine Woodward has lambasted the City Council for considering an administrative vote and urged its members to leave the matter to voters to decide.

The council took hours of impassioned testimony on the proposed grant on Monday night. Fluoride advocates regularly contended that fluoridated water is a safe and effective way to bridge gaps in oral health that disproportionately harm lower income residents and people of color.

Opponents questioned the scientific consensus behind fluoride and its safety, but also criticized the council’s process and the details in the grant agreement. Many told personal stories of the negative impacts they believe exposure to fluoride had on their personal health.

The $4 million grant was tweaked just hours ahead of Monday’s meeting after council members and city officials expressed concerns with its requirements last week.

The revised agreement lengthened the amount of time the city has to study and install a fluoridation system from one year to at least four, with the potential for an extension of that deadline.

The grant’s new language also clarified the collaboration required between the city and Arcora, stating they will “work together on mutually agreeable initial or formal press releases.” The previous draft stated that the city “must seek prior approval of all press releases” from the Arcora Foundation.

Healthcare organizations and nonprofits have long called for fluoridation in Spokane, the largest city in Washington to not add fluoride to its water supply. They ramped up the effort again this year and pressed the Spokane City Council to take direct action instead of deferring to voters.

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

Numerous health organizations promote water fluoridation as a safe and effective way to reduce tooth decay by about 25% in children and adults. Opponents express skepticism about the safety of fluoride and prefer topical treatments to the blanket approach of water fluoridation.

Because it was proposed as an emergency ordinance, the council’s action would have required the support of five of its seven members but would not be subject to the mayor’s veto.But the council decided unanimously to forgo a vote, opting to indefinitely defer the emergency ordinance requiring fluoridation.

Adam Shanks can be reached at (509) 459-5136 or adams@spokesman.com

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