In a small industrial office next to the railroad tracks on the outskirts of Port Hueneme, John Omweg grabs a clipboard with a California Department of Health Services form meant to track fluoride levels in the city’s water supply.
He walks through the plant and grabs a sample out of a pipe of water that’s been filtered, treated with disinfectant, fluoridated and had chemicals added to balance its pH. He tests it with a fluoride analyzer.
The level, 0.9 parts per million, the equivalent of a gallon of fluoride for every million gallons of water pumped out by the plant, is right on target, notes Omweg, the lead operator at the Port Hueneme Water Authority.
The numbers in this daily routine are carefully recorded and then sent to state health officials, who regulate drinking water quality and monitor fluoridation programs.
Although fluoride has been added to water supplies for more than 60 years in the United States, Ventura County, and most of the state, has been reluctant to embrace the process meant to fight tooth decay, especially in children.
In Fillmore, the city’s water supply is naturally high in fluoride, but in the county as a whole only Port Hueneme adds the cavity-fighting trace element to drinking water.
That will soon change.
As part of the largest fluoridation effort in U.S. history, more than a half-million residents of Ventura County will be among the 18 million people in Southern California getting a little extra in their drinking water come July.
That’s when the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California will begin mixing fluoride in drinking water that is piped to water agencies serving customers from San Diego to Ventura County. In one fell swoop, fluoridation advocates will have doubled the number of people in California getting fluoride in their drinking water. And that has happened without the kind of bruising little local battles that have characterized the debate.
“The anti-fluoridation lobby is quite vocal and very, very active,” said Jonathan Ziv, an Agoura Hills dentist who was part of a statewide Fluoridation Task Force that advocated for the move.
The Task Force, which sees the Metropolitan Water District fluoridation plan as a huge public health victory, was instrumental in lobbying for the decision.
Doctors support fluoridation
The fluoridation of public water supplies is supported by a long list of groups including the National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association and the American Dental Association. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranked it as one of the top 10 public health achievements of the 20th century, but opponents believe fluoridating water is akin to using drinking water to medicate the population or even worse.
For Ziv, the fact that the vote happened with such little rancor was astounding.
“Honestly we were quite surprised it went as smoothly as it did,” he said.
But for some residents and opponents of fluoridation, the move smacks of supreme political gamesmanship.
“I was informed one day prior to the vote,” said Jeff Green, the national director of Citizens for Safe Drinking Water, of the Metropolitan Water District’s vote in 2003 in support of the fluoridation plan.
The California Endowment, a private foundation that pushes for access to healthcare for the state’s poor, paid the $5.5 million it costs to add fluoride to the Metropolitan Water District’s five treatment plants.
The move also came after a long effort in California by state public health officials to boost the number of people with access to fluoridated water. In the U.S., California ranks 47th among states in the number of people who have fluoridated water.
In 1995, a state law passed that required cities with more than 10,000 water hookups to fluoridate their water when money became available, but many communities balked. Some, like Santa Barbara, passed a resolution effectively barring the addition of fluoride to water supplies. Other cities, like Ventura, put the issue on the back burner.
Group vows to file lawsuit
Green said up to that point his anti-fluoridation group had racked up several victories in stopping fluoridation in several communities. But the vote by the Metropolitan Water District board, which is made up of members of 23 other Southern California water agencies, was an effective end run around any potential local opposition, Green said.
“I don’t believe that most of the water districts would have individually made that kind of decision,” said Green, who expects his group will soon be filing a lawsuit related to the fluoridation plan.
Many residents simply don’t know where their water comes from, let alone what agency oversees decisions regarding its quality, Green said.
It’s a testament to California’s complicated plumbing that much of the water coming to Ventura County is first sucked out of out of the San Francisco Bay estuary then pumped 400 miles down the California Aqueduct and over the Tehachapi Mountains into the Los Angeles Basin, before being piped back up to the county.
Before it comes to Ventura County, the water is treated at the Metropolitan Water District’s Joseph Jensen Filtration Plant in Granada Hills and then pumped through tunnels and into the pipelines that make up the Calleguas Municipal Water District. Calleguas doesn’t treat the water, but delivers it to much of the county, including Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley, Moorpark, Camarillo, Oxnard and Port Hueneme.
Don Kendall, executive director of the Calleguas District, expects some people will be surprised that the decision on fluoridation has already been made. He said both the Calleguas and Metropolitan water districts plan to begin informing customers in the coming months.
Simi Valley resident Ellyn Sutton is one of those upset about the move. She’s contacted members of the City Council and officials from Calleguas and Metropolitan Water District.
“I am a person on a limited income who must buy bottled water because, for the sake of my health, I will not drink fluoridated water,” Sutton wrote in an e-mail to Councilwoman Michelle Foster.
Sutton suggested the city’s Public Works Director Tim Nanson consider filtering out the fluoride from the water coming from Metropolitan Water District.
His response was that every “responsible scientific, public health and lawmaking authority has deemed drinking water fluoridation to be safe and effective.” The decision was made through a normal process that was open to the public, Nanson said, and he mentioned the extensive list of research on the benefits of fluoridation.
“You suggested that I do more research,” Sutton replied in an e-mail. “Well, I am suggesting that the group of people, who will be responsible for fluoridating Simi Valley’s water system, do more research.”