For the third time in 35 years, Billings residents have voted against adding fluoride to the city water supply.
With complete but unofficial results Tuesday night, fluoride opponents outnumbered supporters by 17,150 votes to 15,620, or a difference of 1,530 votes. Similar proposals were defeated twice in the past – by 3,070 votes in 1967 and by 555 votes in 1982.
“This is the third time they voted it out,” said Sarah Rollins, one of the leaders of the opposition. “I think that should really send a message: The people of Billings want clean water.”
Because of the vote, she said, opponents won’t have to buy bottled water or expensive filtration systems and advocates of fluoridation can still buy fluoride supplements.
“It works out for everyone, don’t you think?” she said.
Lora Schultz, chairwoman of the Fluoride Action Campaign Effort, which pushed for fluoridation, said people heard a lot of conflicting information, and a lot of warnings about the supposed dangers of fluoride.
“People were fearful,” she said. “I’m disappointed for the people of Billings because the dental crisis is only going to get worse.”
The most recent push to add fluoride to the city water supply arose from a pair of Billings “dental summits” held last year. The summits were convened to do something about a growing shortage of dentists and increasing numbers of people using hospital emergency rooms to obtain dental care.
Adding fluoride to the water supply was promoted as the cheapest and most fundamental way to begin improving dental health.
Almost as soon as the plans were announced, however, opponents swung into action, tapping into an international network of anti-fluoridationists who say fluoride is linked to any number of health problems, including bone fractures, arthritis, cancer and thyroid disease.
The debate has been raging since fluoride was first introduced into a public water supply more than 50 years ago. Today, nearly two-thirds of the U.S. population drinks water that is fluoridated naturally or artificially.
Fluoride is naturally present in most drinking water. Levels in the Yellowstone River, the source of city water, average 0.4 parts per million. Under a fluoridation program, that level would be increased to what is considered the optimal level, 0.7 to 1.2 parts per million.
At that level, according to the American Dental Association and other health groups, tooth decay rates can be expected to drop between 40 and 60 percent for children and adults.
At the urging of the Fluoride Action Campaign Effort, which was created after the dental summits last year, the City Council voted May 13 to begin adding fluoride to the city water supply. By early August, opponents had gathered enough petition signatures to force a public vote on the issue.
Rollins said the council vote, which angered her at the time, probably ended up helping the opponents, who had to gather signatures and begin spreading the word about the dangers of fluoride.
“We had a good group and they were very passionate about what they were doing,” she said.
Mae Woo, a retired dentist who also worked to defeat the fluoridation initiative, said the campaign convinced people of what she said is the truth, that fluoride “is not safe or effective. … The voters were able to see through the smokescreen of fluoridation and we voted it down again.”
Schultz said the people involved in the dental summits will continue to work on other aspects of their campaign – to educate people on dental health and to push for legal changes that will make it easier for retired dentists to donate their time to caring for needy people.
Fluoride advocates concentrated on delivering their message to civic groups and other local organizations. They had the endorsement of numerous organizations in Billings, including both hospitals, more than 100 local doctors and dentists, Head Start, several PTAs and the county health department. Nationally, fluoridation has been endorsed by the ADA, the American Medical Association and the U.S. Public Health Service.
Opponents, who could cite the support of only a relative handful of people with advanced degrees or high stature in the fields of science or health, made up for it with a crusading zeal. They held rallies and public meetings, distributed brochures, wrote letters to the editor and posted yard signs throughout the city.