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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane to move ahead with fluoride study

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The Spokane City Council approved a contract Monday to study the logistics and price of adding fluoride to Spokane’s water supply.

The study will assess the immediate and long-term costs of implementing a fluoridation system across the city’s seven wells.

Its results will inform future debate over whether the city should add fluoride to its water, a common practice in cities across the country used to prevent tooth decay.

Simultaneously, the City Council passed a resolution Monday that promises to solicit public feedback on the study before deciding whether to fluoridate the water.

The contract was not particularly controversial among council members, who approved it by a 5-2 vote. The resolution passed by the same vote, with Council Members Jonathan Bingle and Michael Cathcart opposed.

“It is simply to get more information,” Council President Breean Beggs said of the study.

The central sticking point Monday was whether the council would commit to holding a public advisory vote on fluoridation after the study was completed. The council did not make that promise, but could still opt to hold a vote when the study is complete in 18 months to two years.

Any time the council takes up a matter related to fluoride – even if the measure falls short of actually implementing fluoridation – it draws a throng of impassioned advocates on both sides of the issue.

Advocates for moving forward with the study defended fluoridation as a scientifically proven way to prevent tooth decay equitably and on a systemic level. They said fluoridation is long overdue in Spokane.

Lisa Bilich, a dental hygiene professor at Eastern Washington University, explained that patients at the school’s Dental Hygiene Clinic often have dental decay so bad it can’t be taken care of.

“The decay we see is just crippling to our people,” Bilich said.

Fluoride opponents, though smaller in number on Monday night, have warned that the study is yet another step on the inevitable path to fluoridation, which they fear may have negative health consequences.

“Just because you have the authority and or ability to do something doesn’t mean that you should,” said Wendy Cossette, who said fluoridating the water supply – most of which is not used for drinking – would be a waste of money.

The study will be funded by a grant from the Arcora Foundation, the philanthropic arm of dental insurer Delta Dental.

The City Council approved the $4 million grant from Arcora in 2020, but the study was delayed. Officials worried that the city would be required to pay the grant money back if the city conducted the survey and chose not to move ahead with fluoride.

Last year, the grant agreement was amended to allow the city to spend up to $600,000 on a fluoridation feasibility study with no strings attached.

The contract for the study also calls for the firm, Murraysmith, to complete 30% of the design of a full fluoridation system.

The practice of adding fluoride to public drinking water is decades old. An estimated 73% of Americans have access to fluoridated water. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and numerous medical organizations tout fluoride as a safe and effective way to prevent tooth decay by about 25% in children and adults.

But as long as public health advocates have embraced fluoride, Spokane has been home to residents concerned about its perceived risks. Three times voters have rejected fluoridation proposals, most recently in 2000.

Cathcart, backed by Bingle and Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, advocated that the council’s resolution pledge to put the matter to a public advisory vote, regardless of what the study shows. His proposed amendment to the resolution narrowly failed.

Cathcart argued that as the city moves along in studying and designing a fluoridation system, it is “going to lose an opportunity to go out to the voters.”

“I really think the voters have a right to have a say in this, they’ve voted three times in Spokane and three times they’ve said no,” Cathcart said.

Beggs noted that the study will likely take 18 months or more to complete, and expressed concern that the council would be making a promise that a future council might not keep.

But Councilwoman Lori Kinnear rejected that argument, noting that the council regularly makes commitments that bind future councils. She supports having the public weigh in through a vote.

“The last time there was a vote was 22 years ago, that’s a lifetime for some people,” Kinnear said.

Mayor Nadine Woodward voiced disappointment in the council on Monday for not committing to a public vote, and warned its members to “listen to those who do not agree with you.” Woodward has not taken a stance on fluoridation but demanded that the issue be left to voters to decide.

“Ultimately, we are representatives of our constituents and we must listen to all voices,” Woodward said.

There is nothing that legally requires City Council members to heed the will of voters, even if an advisory vote is held.

“The person I listen to the most on this issue is my dentist,” said Councilwoman Karen Stratton.

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