Beaming dentists and health officials toasted each other with tap water-filled champagne glasses on Wednesday hours after Las Vegas became one of the last major American cities to fluoridate its water supply.
"To a happier, healthier Nevada," State Health Officer Mary Guinan said as she raised her plastic goblet at the ceremony outside the Community College of Southern Nevada’s West Charleston Boulevard campus dental clinic.
"And to passage of the referendum to keep fluoride in November," said Dr. Bernard Feldman, chairman of the University of Nevada School of Medicine’s department of pediatrics.
Voters in the Nov. 7 general election will be able to reject or continue fluoridation in Clark County, which is expected to reduce local rates of pediatric tooth decay that are among the highest in the nation.
The fluoridate first, vote later system has provoked outrage among fluoride opponents, dozens of whom gathered outside the Las Vegas Valley Water District’s offices Wednesday afternoon to protest as part of a local talk radio station promotion.
The controversial timing emerged from a political compromise struck at the end of last year’s legislative session. Gov. Kenny Guinn agreed to sign a fluoridation bill, co-sponsored by Republican state Sen. Ray Rawson and Democratic Assemblywoman Chris Giunchigliani, both of Las Vegas, only if the measure was put up for a public vote. Both sides have said that they neglected to pay attention to the dates outlined in the various bills.
"The legislative process was very confusing, and this is one of those cases," said Jack Finn, press secretary for Guinn, who was in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. "The governor looked at the bill and said that this is something that the people of Nevada need to decide on their own. How it was crafted so that the fluoride goes in first was largely out of our hands."
Fluoride was pumped from a storage tank into treated water at the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s Lake Mead treatment plant about 7 a.m. Wednesday. Fluoridated water was expected to begin flowing from taps about 12 hours later.
The authority is attempting to pump about half a part of fluoride per million parts of water into the regional system. That is expected to combine with the 0.3 parts per million of naturally occurring fluoride in Lake Mead to raise the level to 0.8 parts per million. Officials hope the elevated fluoride intake of local children and adults will reach levels sufficient to strengthen teeth and prevent tooth decay, officials said.
San Diego, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, Portland, Ore., and San Jose, Calif., have yet to fluoridate their water.
Major U.S. public health, medical and dental groups agree that fluoride at proper levels is a safe and cost-effective means of fighting tooth decay. But some Clark County residents have protested fluoridation in recent weeks, claiming that the chemical causes illnesses ranging from Alzheimer’s disease to weakened bones in senior citizens.
Rawson acknowledged the controversy as he accepted a commendation from Feldman at Wednesday’s ceremony recognizing his fluoridation efforts.
"This may be the only nice word said about me all year," he said.
Dozens of callers have contacted the water authority in recent days about the effects of water filtering systems on tap water’s fluoride content. The authority has advised callers to contact their water filter companies for detailed information about their particular systems, spokesman Vince Alberta said.
Legislators, health officials and pro-fluoride activists at Wednesday’s ceremony said they will work in the months leading up to the election to convince Southern Nevadans that fluoride is a safe and cost-effective means of fighting cavities, particularly in low-income children.