Foon Rhee

Foon Rhee: The fluoride wars come to Davis – and look who's leading the way

Published: Sunday, Jun. 16, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 6E
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jun. 18, 2013 - 9:28 am

In the old days – we're talking the late 1950s and early 1960s – the loudest opposition to fluoride in drinking water came from right-wingers, in places like the John Birch Society, who called it a communist plot.

Nowadays, the most vocal foes are often liberals and environmentalists who don't trust the public health establishment.

So to those following the fluoride wars, it's no shocker that a front has opened in Davis. It fits the profile. Many anti-fluoride crusaders now tend to be affluent baby boomers, mostly white and well-educated, who are concerned about what goes into their bodies and who are politically savvy.

As a politics and policy junkie, I'm fascinated by this transformation in the fluoride fight, and can't wait to see how it plays out in Davis.

It's an issue because Davis voters in March approved a massive project to draw water from the Sacramento River and run it through a new $110 million treatment plant. Starting in 2016, Davis is to get 12 million gallons a day of treated water and its partner, Woodland, another 18 million gallons daily. Because there will be separate pipelines to the two cities, each gets to decide for itself whether to add fluoride.

Yolo County supervisors voted 4-1 last month for a nonbinding resolution in favor of fluoridated water. In Woodland, fluoridation isn't a major controversy yet; the decision-making process isn't as far along. In Davis, it's a huge battle.

The city's Water Advisory Committee is studying the issue so it can make a recommendation to the City Council. The committee heard from public health officials, then from opponents at a crowded meeting last month. At its next meeting June 27, it's supposed to see an all-important report on the cost of fluoridation – residents are already suing over the sizable rate hikes for the water project – and could begin debate.

Herb Niederberger, the public works director in Davis, has gone through fluoride controversies several times during his 30 years in utilities. "It never ceases to amaze me the level of involvement and the passion," he says.

If you believe public health officials or the American Dental Association, it should be a no-brainer.

They say fluoridation is a safe and effective way to prevent tooth decay, particularly for poor children. They promote it as one of the top public health accomplishments of the 20th century. At the same time, after more research on fluoride's longer-term risks and how much people are getting in toothpaste and other products, federal health officials are considering lowering the recommended level of fluoride, and environmental officials are looking at revising what should be the maximum level allowed in drinking water.

That reassessment is emboldening the anti-flouride forces, notably the Fluoride Action Network, which started right after Ralph Nader came out against fluoridation while running for president as the Green Party candidate in 2000. Foes appeared last July before the Sacramento City Council to oppose a $550,000 grant to pay for fluoridation equipment upgrades.

In the region, Roseville, West Sacramento and several private systems also add fluoride to drinking water. While nearly three-fourths of all Americans on community water systems receive fluoridated water, it's closer to 60 percent in California, with only about 40 percent getting "optimal" levels, due to cost and technical issues.

Alan Pryor, who leads Davis Citizens Against Fluoridation, says the science is firmly on their side. Fluoridation isn't effective and poses health risks, he argues, while children's dental health depends far more on family income than the water they drink.

Pryor faults government agencies and what he calls the "public health industry" for refusing to back down. He predicts that just like DDT and asbestos, fluoride will eventually be banned as toxic.

Environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, are also concerned about fluoride's impact on wildlife and ecosystems, as well as people. The board of the local club, which Pryor also leads, voted unanimously Thursday night to oppose fluoridated water for Davis and Woodland. Citing all the usual arguments, it objects to "the addition of anything to our water supplies that is not required to ensure safety of the water supply itself."

If the anti-fluoride forces in Davis need any inspiration, they can look to Portland, where opponents forced a referendum last month in which voters overwhelmingly rejected fluoridation.

Given Portland's history and demographics, the result was expected. But Jim Moore, a political science professor at Pacific University outside Portland, was a little surprised by the 60 percent-to-40 percent margin, which overturned a vote by the city council there and which he says kills fluoridation for good.

The opponents, he says, had a much clearer message. One campaign poster said simply: "THERE IS POISON IN THE TAP WATER."

What happened in Portland seems to continue a troubling aspect of today's politics – the combatants can't agree on the "facts," making it awfully difficult to have a reasoned debate. "Both sides cried science, but neither side accepted the other side's facts," Moore told me.

Foes tapped into the same distrust in the establishment that motivates parents not to immunize their children and activists to picket against genetically modified food, he says.

Pryor says the Davis grass-roots group includes some people with those views, but is a much broader coalition that also includes Republicans worried about cost and libertarians focused on individual freedom. "It runs across the political spectrum," he says.

In some places, the opposition has also seemed a tad elitist. Fluoridation foes talk about choice, though they can easily afford to buy bottled water. Not putting fluoride in the water, however, limits the choices of poor families who can't afford dental care for their children.

So I give the Davis group credit for not just saying "no," but also offering an alternative – a 1 percent tax on water bills (which would also require voter approval) to fund dental care for poor families in Yolo County.

Pryor says that proposal will strengthen his case to the City Council. It is likely to decide in August or September, and could go either way. If the council votes for fluoridation, opponents are already primed to put an initiative on the ballot, probably next June.

"This is Davis," Niederberger says. "Anything can happen."

If I had to bet, I'd say that one way or another, fluoride isn't in Davis' future.

Follow Foon Rhee on Twitter @foonrhee.

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