Shasta County public health officials should refrain from promoting the use of fluoride in drinking water as long as Redding citizens are trying to force a public vote on the issue, the county’s top attorney advised Tuesday.
After a spirited 90-minute discussion, County Counsel Karen Jahr said it’s appropriate for the Department of Public Health to spend $100,000 on Redding’s fluoridation effort if it sticks to engineering studies and avoids “partisan” advocacy.
Jahr’s comments came as supervisors were reconsidering the expenditure in the wake of criticism from fluoride opponents, many of whom used Tuesday’s meeting to attack Public Health’s assertion that fluoridation is a safe way to prevent tooth decay.
“A distinction must be made between appropriate educational methods . . . versus prohibited campaigning,” said Jahr, who added such things as bumper stickers or mailers advocating one side of a ballot issue could not be bought with public funds.
The $100,000 was approved during the county’s budget hearings last summer, a few days before the Redding City Council voted in September to move forward with fluoridation.
The Health Department has so far spent about $15,000, in part to conduct a public opinion poll on the issue last year, which found that about two-thirds of respondents favored fluoridation.
Meanwhile, opponents of fluoridation have been circulating petitions to put the issue on the ballot. Betty Doty of Redding said Tuesday afternoon that opponents have gathered about 5,000 signatures — more than they would need to force a ballot measure.
Supervisor Irwin Fust requested that the Board of Supervisors revisit the funding after opponents complained recently that the department was improperly injecting itself into a controversial city matter.
Fust said Tuesday that health officials serve the county’s cities as well as the unincorporated areas and thus have a right to speak out on cities’ health issues. But he said that Redding’s fluoridation question has become a political issue.
“I would hate to see this board get into a ruckus we don’t belong in,” Fust said. “If $100,000 . . . is spent between now and when the vote is taken, how is that going to be spent on both sides?”
Public Health Director Marta McKenzie said after the meeting that the department had always intended to use the money to help the city with engineering analyses, equipment installment and purchase — none of which fall into the realm of advocacy.
The Redding City Council asked the agency to help with education, too, but those duties will now fall on the privately funded Shasta Oral Health Task Force, a group of dentists and other health professionals who favor fluoride, McKenzie said.
While Tuesday’s discussion dealt mainly with the county’s role in the fluoridation effort, partisans on both sides seized on the opportunity to debate the merits of fluoridation itself.
With public testimony and a 20-minute video, opponents cast fluoride as a toxic, corrosive substance that would create a public health risk if it is ever spilled as it is being added to the city’s water system.
Donna Williamson of Redding said that “dangerous and even lethal” concentrated chemicals would be delivered weekly to the city’s 16 water wells, some of which are in residential neighborhoods where children are present.
“As a retired health care worker I am concerned about the vulnerability of babies, young children and the health-challenged individual who would be forced to drink and bathe in water toxic to their bodies,” Roberta Withrow of Redding said.
Health and education officials, including county Public Health Officer Andrew Deckert, responded with a slide show touting fluoridation. Deckert said the dosage of fluoride in the water would be so small that it would not present a health risk.
Others said fluoridation is a way to prevent tooth decay in children whose families cannot afford dental care.
“I have seen children with dental problems so severe, the only recourse was multiple extractions,” said Patty Mancuso, a Gateway Unified School District nurse. “The most common thread I see is financial. Some of the kids have Medi-Cal, some even have dental insurance, but it covers only 50 percent (of the cost).”