• Town had fluoridated water until San Marcos residents voted in November 2015 to stop fluoridating their water.
• Most of the costs of fluoridation in Buda would be covered by the Texas Fluoridation Program.
The debate over whether to add fluoride to the water in Buda, reignited early this year by community activists, will come to a head in November as residents decide the issue at the polls.
Residents of the Hays County city of 15,000 had been receiving fluoride in their water for years, starting in 2002 when the city became a customer of the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, which operates the San Marcos Water Treatment Plant.
But after San Marcos residents voted in November 2015 to stop fluoridating their water, Buda and other cities that get their water from that plant also lost fluoridation.
Prior to the San Marcos referendum, Buda City Council members passed a resolution committing to their preference for fluoridation.
Buda had been preparing to restart fluoridation in early 2016, but community activists urged the council not to follow through on a plan to do so by installing a system at the Bonita Vista Pump Station. The station would adjust fluoride levels in surface water distributed just to Buda residents.
The system would add enough fluoride to bring it to 0.7 milligrams per liter, the level recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The majority of the costs of the system, plus its design and installation, are being covered by the Texas Fluoridation Program. The city will pay about $4,000 for equipment, plus $9,300 for chemicals, to provide treatment for two years, according to preliminary estimates.
After a February public hearing during which several dozen speakers protested fluoridation, the City Council decided on a 5-2 vote, with Council Members Eileen Altmiller and Wiley Hopkins voting against, to put the issue to voters. The proposition is the first of 20 proposed charter amendments that will appear on Buda voters’ ballots.
The issue of water fluoridation has drawn debate in the United States ever since the practice became popular more than 70 years ago, though it has the support of leading scientific and health groups.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has heralded fluoridation as one of the top 10 great public health achievements in the 20th century, credited with reducing tooth decay.
“Some of the news sources being cited (by anti-fluoridation activists) are, in my opinion, marginal at best,” Buda Mayor Todd Ruge said. “I have to go by actual experts in the field. … All the organizations, state and national, that dentists are members of, unanimously think this is a good thing.”
The practice is also often touted as a benefit for low-income residents, who often don’t have access to good dental care and are disproportionately affected by tooth decay. As of 2014, 66 percent of Americans and 79 percent of Texans were served by community water systems with fluoridated water, according to the CDC.
Several Texas communities opt not to do it, however, including Smithville, Elgin, Manor and Lago Vista. Activists in Austin, which has been fluoridating its water since 1973 after a voter referendum, have tried to revisit the issue without success.
Opponents claim fluoride is a health risk and argue that it isn’t the role of the government to make personal health decisions for people.
Josh Painting, member of Buda Citizens for Safe Water, said that while the group’s members have different reasons they are wary of fluoride, a unifying point for him has been the preference for individual choice. Some members of the group with auto-immune diseases say fluoride negatively affects them, Painting said.
“When I talk to people, especially if they’re on the fence, I ask them, ‘Can you 100 percent guarantee that what is being put in our water is healthy for everyone, from newborns to people that are sick?’” Painting said. “And no one really can. … It is not needed to keep our water safe to drink, (so) why risk it? That’s how I leave it.”
Painting and others argue that if other methods exist to improve dental health, such as teeth brushing, then fluoridation isn’t necessary, and money spent on fluoridation would be better spent on providing individual dental care.
But Texas health officials say fluoridation is more cost-effective, and some point to a 2000 Texas study that shows that fluoridation saves state taxpayers $19 per child per year because it reduces Medicaid costs for treating cavities.
The group’s campaigning in Buda, Painting said, has mainly consisted of engaging voters on social media, as well as block walking and word-of-mouth.
Ruge said he was aware at the time of the council vote that, especially with this being an off-year election, a small but vocal group of fluoride opponents might have an upper hand, as he believes they did in San Marcos. But he said he is optimistic that supporters of what he views as a public health measure will win out.
“My hope is that reason wins out, and people actually do a little research on their own with reputable sources,” Ruge said.
What else is on the ballot?
In addition to picking a mayor and three City Council members, Buda voters will decide the fate of 20 propositions for changes to the city’s charter. Many are minor tweaks to language. Some of the most consequential, other than the fluoride vote, include one that would transition the City Council to having members represent geographic districts instead of serving at-large.
The election is Nov. 7. Early voting is underway and runs through Nov. 3.