In February 1955, results of a study on fluoridation conducted in Nebraska and northern Kansas thrust the topic into discussion in Hastings.
The study had shown that children living in low-fluoride cities had an average of about three times as many decayed teeth, four times as many missing teeth and two times as many filled teeth as children in cities with an appropriate level of fluoride in the water.
Researchers stated that Nebraska cities should have an average of 1 to 1.3 parts per million fluoride in their water supply to promote healthy teeth in kids. Children who drank fluoridated water since birth were said to have an average of 60 percent less tooth decay than those who didn’t.
The Adams County Dental Society had endorsed the use of fluoride in the water supply a few years earlier, requesting that the Hastings City Council study the matter. The council referred it to the Board of Public Works, which was said to have never submitted a report on the matter.
At the time, it would have cost about $1.70 for each Hastings resident per year to add fluoride to the water supply. By 1960, purchase and installation of fluoridation equipment for the initial year of use was estimated at $13,000. In 1974, estimated cost for the first year, including fluoride itself and the equipment, would have been about $105,000.
Hastings residents varied greatly in their opinions on the benefits or detriments of fluoridation. In general, dentists and doctors, as well as both the Adams County Dental Association and Adams County Medical Association, spoke in its favor. They cited both studies and personal experience. Dentists and doctors from Blue Hill and Superior, cities that had fluoridated their water supplies, came to Hastings in 1974 to compare dental health in their communities with Hastings.
Percentages of children with decayed or missing front teeth were significantly higher in Hastings than in Superior, information from dentists showed.
But others, including dentists, lawyers and a former mayor of Hastings, spoke out strongly against fluoridation. In a special meeting of the City Council, Feb. 9, 1960, Judge Grace Simpson mentioned a Communist influence in regard to the push for fluoridation.
“Perhaps we don’t believe it because we don’t want to believe it, just as Americans refused to believe Charles Lindberg’s (sic) warnings about Hitler,” Simpson said.
Fluoridation was added to the April 5, 1960, ballot. Voters rejected it by a vote of 3,404 to 1,397.
Soon, the fluoridation controversy bypassed local politics and went to the state level. The Nebraska Legislature passed a law in 1967 permitting governmental subdivisions to fluoridate their water. A lawsuit was filed in Lancaster County to declare the law unconstitutional, trying to prevent Omaha’s Metropolitan Utilities District from adding artificial sodium fluoride to its water supply.
By 1974, the Legislature had required that all cities add fluoride to their water supplies by Jan. 1, 1975, unless an election on fluoridation was held and electors voted it out.
Opponents of fluoridation in Hastings did just that. They turned in 2,348 signatures on a petition in March 1974 to put the issue on the May 14 primary election ballot. Although 315 of those signatures were found to be incorrect or illegal, there was still enough of them to put the issue on the ballot. Leading up to the vote, a verbal warfare was launched by both sides.
“To me, it is unthinkable that any responsible person should agree to put the deadliest poison known to man, a poison 15 times more deadly than arsenic, into their drinking water and then convince you that it is good for you,” former Hastings mayor William Gettmann said.
Fluoride was blamed for contributing to corrosion of metal water pipes, faucets and plumbing fixtures.
Nine people wrote to the Tribune’s Vox Populi, or “Voice of the People,” to speak in favor of fluoridation on the day before the vote, May 13, 1974. That same day the Tribune urged residents to vote in favor of fluoridation in an editorial.
The measure was defeated by a vote of 4,610 against and 2,132 in favor.
Many area towns decided the same thing during their elections that day, including Holstein, Kenesaw and Juniata.
The 1974 election was the third time that Hastings residents had voted on the fluoridation issue, including votes during 1960 and 1968. Each time, opponents to fluoridation won out by a margin of 60 percent to 40 percent or more.
In March 1998, Hastings Public Schools did approve a fluoride rinsing program for students in the first through sixth grades.
The Nebraska legislature’s 1974 ruling is still law in the state. Since towns made their decision on the matter that year, the issue was mainly forgotten by state residents until 2008, when the legislature re-affirmed the law and added that communities of over 1,000 residents must fluoridate their water unless fluoridation is once again voted out by the people.