The decision on whether Healdsburg should end its more than 60-year practice of adding fluoride to the water supply will go to the voters in November.
The Healdsburg City Council voted unanimously to place the controversial measure on the Nov. 4 ballot. If approved, it would end the only government fluoridation program in Sonoma County.
A Rohnert Park group spearheaded the effort, seeking and collecting the more than 1,000 signatures needed by city law.
“We’re very pleased,” said Dawna Gallagher Stroeh of Clean Water Sonoma-Marin, which has also been battling efforts by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors to add fluoride to its water supply.
“When it comes down to it, we want to have a choice. There’s never been a study that says fluoride can be ingested, it’s only been studied topically.”
Members of the City Council, including Mayor Jim Wood, a retired dentist, have voiced their opposition to the measure in the past. On Monday, while each of the four attending council members – Susan Jones was absent – said they wanted to see the measure voted on, they also said they wanted the city to provide a rebuttal to voters.
“A yes vote on this would be a no vote for what the city has been doing since 1952,” said Shaun McCaffery, the vice mayor.
A report prepared by the city attorney which certified there was enough signatures collected to put the measure on the ballot, estimated the initiative would cost Healdsburg voters between $3,500 to $8,900, which has been included in the proposed city budget for the fiscal year 2014-15.
While there was no public comment on the merits of the use of fluoride, several people attended the meeting representing both sides of what has become a contentious issue across the county.
Healdsburg is the only city in Sonoma County that adds fluoride to its water, but the Sonoma County Water Agency has been studying whether to fluoridate its water, which is delivered to Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Rohnert Park, Cotati, Windsor, Sonoma, Valley of the Moon and Marin County.
The practice of fluoridating public water systems began after World War II. About three-quarters of the nation’s population served by public water system, or roughly 196 million people are now receiving fluoridated water.
According to federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, health and science experts over the years have provided convincing evidence that water fluoridation is safe and effective.
It is a practice backed by the U.S. Surgeon General, World Health Organization, national Cancer Institute and American Dental Association, which called water fluoridation “the single most effective public health measure to prevent dental decay.”
But skeptics cite studies in other countries that report virtually identical levels of decay among children raised on fluoridated and non-fluoridated water. They argue that at least one study in 2006 by the National Research Council, found fluoride can cause harm to teeth, bones, brains and endocrine systems.
And, the critics argue, since it’s added to products like soft drinks and toothpaste, fluoridating water risks people will get too much of it. In essence, they say, it is a form of forced mass medication.
But defenders say the scientific data shows clear and convincing benefit to fluoridation, arguing the risks fluoride are mainly philosophical. And here in Sonoma County, they say, the need is great. County health officials have advocated water fluoridation as a way to combat a tooth-decay epidemic.
The city councils of Cotati and Sebastopol have opposed fluoridation of the county’s drinking water, even though Sebastopol has its own water supply that would not be affected directly by the county Water Agency proposal.
But Sebastopol officials have raised concerns about fluoride leaching into waterways and its effect on wildlife in the Laguna de Santa Rosa.
The county project to fluoridate water has an estimated cost of $8.5 million, with an annual upkeep of nearly $1 million, according to estimates released a little more than a year ago.
The much smaller Healdsburg system, which also provides water to adjacent Fitch Mountain, spends an “insignificant” amount of money for fluoridation — $40,000 annually — according to Ryan Kirchner, the city’s operations and utilities superintendent.
“Fluoride is pretty cheap,” he said.
In 2013, Healdsburg treated 711 million gallons of water, so the cost to fluoridate is estimated at less than 6 cents per 1,000 gallons, Kirchner said.
He said the city doses the water at 0.08 parts per million of fluoride, or less, and carefully monitors it to ensure it falls within state department of Public Health guidelines.