A decades-old dental debate over water fluoridation has resurfaced in Cincinnati.
A task force revising the Cincinnati city charter uncovered a forgotten provision that may give Cincinnatians a unique voting right to remove the chemical from their water supply.
When the group charged with rooting out obsolete language proposed cutting that provision, though, the efforts proved controversial – partly over murky legal issues, but also over questions about whether fluoridation itself may cause health problems.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognizes fluoridation as one of the 10 greatest public health achievements of the 20th century due to its ability to prevent tooth decay. The American Dental Association says fluoridation is not only safe and effective, but saves people money: An individual’s lifetime supply of fluoridated water costs less than one dental filling. About three-quarters of Americans rely on fluoridated water.
Despite that, questions about fluoridation have persisted.
In July, the task force rewriting the city charter discussed jettisoning Chapter XI, which states that any ordinance to fluoridate Cincinnati water must first be approved by a majority vote. It also requires that any fluoridation has to be halted until approved by a majority vote. The question: When was Chapter XI added to the charter, and did Cincinnati get that vote? A history of fluoridation assembled by Greater Cincinnati Water Works shows there was never a vote in favor of fluoridation.
“What I thought was something to declare obsolete turns out to be a relatively complicated legal question, and with potentially complicated social questions,” said chair of the Charter Review Task Force Mike Morgan, a lawyer, real estate agent and president of Queen City History & Education, Ltd. “We might, as a city, have in this article the ability to take fluoride out of our municipal water supply.”
An effort to remove that provision split the committee, with a majority wanting the fluoride provision removed and a minority suggesting there were still health questions about fluoride.
Fluoride fights divided the city in 1950s and ’60s
Although most Americans drink water treated with fluoride, it has long been a contentious topic. In the 1950s, fluoridation was feared as a Communist plot. Today, some people worry that its effect on the body has not been sufficiently examined.
Greater Cincinnati Water Works assistant superintendent Jeff Swertfeger said his agency still gets two or three complaints a year from residents about fluoridation. Fluoridation is required by state law, and the science is clear, he said: Fluoridation is safe and effective.
Cincinnatians were first given the chance to decide in November 1953; fluoridation was defeated by a vote of 76,122 to 56,246. The city again rejected the additive in a 1960 vote.
The issue didn’t come up again until a 1969 Ohio law mandated the chemical but allowed cities to opt out by referendum the next year. In 1970, 30 cities exempted themselves from fluoridation – a list that did not include Cincinnati. Today, 22 of the cities still don’t fluoridate their water, including Lockland.
“I think people like water to be as natural as possible,” said Dean Walden, the public works director for the Village of Lockland. “It was brought up as a vote here, and it was a resounding ‘no.’ These days you’ve got fluoride in toothpaste and mouthwashes and several other things right now, so there hasn’t been enough interest in getting it up for another vote.”
To this day water fluoridation continues to spark debate across the country. Despite support from the American Dental Association, a portion of Americans still believe the chemical has dangerous side effects that were not well-researched. In 2013, tens of thousands of Portland, Oregon, citizens signed a petition rejecting fluoridation.
According to the anti-fluoride Fluoride Action Network, most developed nations reject fluoridation, including 97 percent of Western Europe, yet 70 percent of America’s water supply contains the chemical.
“As is becoming increasingly clear, fluoridating water supplies is an outdated, unnecessary and dangerous relic from a 1950s public health culture that viewed mass distribution of chemicals much differently than scientists do today,” reads the Fluoride Action Network website.
A charter provision that no one remembers passing
The charter reform task force recruited University of Toledo College of Law student Trent Sulek to search for an answer to that legal question by comparing city charters and studying the Ohio Revised Code.
His research found that, because Cincinnati is a home rule city with the authority to exercise powers of local self-government, the city charter provision in question may in fact trump state law if it was enacted after the 1969 law went into effect. But nobody seems to know when that charter language was added.
The charter amendment was put into place on May 7, 1974, according to Enquirer archives, which included a brochure on Historical Highlights of the Cincinnati Water Works and the City of Cincinnati as it Pertains to the Cincinnati Water Works.
The Enquirer also found that on July 15, 1971, Hamilton County Common Please Court Judge William R. Matthews ruled the state fluoridation laws unconstitutional. The Ohio Supreme Court overturned his ruling on Nov. 19, 1975, in the case City of Cincinnati v. Whitman, claiming that the court lacked jurisdiction because the director of health was not present.
In a meeting July 21, the Obsolete and Ambiguous Language Committee, a subsection of the task force responsible for making non-controversial recommendations for the November ballot, decided to sit on the issue and present the controversy to the city solicitor’s office.
“What I was personally unaware of was how many people are out there that are raising what seem to be perfectly rational arguments against fluoridation of municipal water supplies,” said Morgan, jokingly renaming the commission the “Fluoridation Committee.”
“I thought that was the realm of crackpots in the ’70s.”
Any changes proposed by the subcommittee would have a long way to go. Changes to the city charter would go to Cincinnati City Council and then would have be approved by voters.
Hannah Haney contributed.
THE FLUORIDE QUESTION
City Charter – Article XI: FLUORIDATION OF WATER
“Any ordinance enacted by the Council of the City of Cincinnati which provides for the fluoridation of water processed and distributed by the Cincinnati Water Works must first be approved by a majority of the electors voting on the question at a special or general election before said ordinance shall become effective, and any ordinance to fluoridate the water distributed by the Cincinnati Water Works that may have been enacted before this amendment is adopted shall cease to be effective until approved by a majority of electors voting on the question at a special or general election.”
2010 Water Fluoridation Statistics by states
How local states rank by percentage of water fluoridated:
Unfluoridated Ohio Cities
- Celina (Mercer County)
- Crestline (Crawford)
- Dover (Tuscarawas)
- Galion (Crawford)
- Greenfield (Highland)
- Greenville (Darke)
- Lancaster (Fairfield)
- Lockland (Hamilton)
- Mansfield (Richland)
- Mount Vernon (Knox)
- New Carlisle (Clark)
- New Philadelphia (Tuscarawas)
- Oakwood (Montgomery)
- Ohio Water Service-Washington Court House (Fayette)
- St. Marys (Auglaize)
- Springfield (Clark)
- Troy (Miami)
- Twin City-Dennison (Tuscarawas)
- Urbana (Champaign)
- Wilmington (Clinton)
- Wooster (Wayne)
- Xenia (Greene)
Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ohio Department of Health
ABOUT GREATER CINCINNATI WATER WORKS
• Supplies more than 48 billion gallons of water a year through 3,000 miles of water mains to about 235,000 residential and commercial accounts.
• Serves the entire city of Cincinnati, most of Hamilton County and parts of Butler and Warren counties in Ohio; Boone County and Florence in Kentucky.
• What the agency says about fluoride:
“Fluoride is added to the water to protect teeth, as required by state law passed in 1969. According to the American Dental Association, persons who drink fluoridated water have a 20% to 40% reduction in the number of cavities that would have occurred without fluoride. Some home filtration devices remove fluoride. Bottled water may not contain fluoride.”
Source: GCWW website