CENTRAL NEBRASKA — Grand Island’s not the only one.
Towns throughout Central Nebraska are leaving it up to voters to decide whether to opt out of the Legislature’s new mandate to fluoridate all water in municipalities with 1,000 or more people.
Officials in Hastings, Shelton and York voted this month to place the issue on November’s general election ballot.
The Central City and Aurora city councils will vote next month on putting it on the ballot as well.
For many city leaders, it’s a simple matter of giving the voters a say.
“Since it’s going to affect everybody, the public should have their voice count,” said Lynn McBride, chairman of the Shelton Village Board.
But concerned health officials and dentists are readying themselves to fight to have a state mandate actually implemented.
Teresa Anderson, executive director of the Central District Health Department, said that between the statewide smoking ban and the fluoridation mandate, this year has been an exciting one for her department.
But she said she had been hoping that more local leaders would follow the Legislature’s lead.
“It’s somewhat frustrating,” Anderson said. “But we also see it as an opportunity to help the public understand the benefits of fluoridation. We feel that’s something they need to know.”
Those on the other side of the issue aren’t exactly pleased, either.
A Hastings group called Nebraskans for Safe Water filed a petition last week to ban the use of a type of fluoride called “hydrofluorosilicic acid” in the city’s water.
Even after the city council voted Monday to put fluoridation on the ballot in November, the group is still hoping to gather the 2,142 signatures necessary to put their ban on the ballot, too.
The resolution passed by the city refers only to “fluoride,” but the group is concerned especially about potential health risks in hydrofluorosilicic acid, said its spokesman, Marvin “Butch” Hughes.
Hughes said he’s worried that there are no long-term toxicological studies on the effects of that form of fluoride.
He said that for cities to refer to “fluoride” on the ballot — knowing that most people understand it as the more common calcium fluoride or sodium fluoride — when they really plan to use hydrofluorosilicic acid is disingenuous.
“We think it’s deceitful. It is uninforming. It’s a bold-faced lie, if you want to look at it as a black-and-white issue,” Hughes said.
Not that they’re OK with any other kind of fluoridation, either. Hughes called it “mass medication” and said it’s not something government should be deciding for everyone.
It’s in the interest of combating arguments like these that Anderson has met with dentists, doctors and other pro-fluoride residents in Aurora, Central City, Grand Island and Wood River.
Anderson said that based on speaking to city officials, she believes the other three towns will join Grand Island soon in putting fluoridation on the ballot.
She wants to assure that local health professionals have an education campaign ready.
The primary message she wants to get out is that it’s been proven to be a safe, effective tool that’s invaluable to public health — hydrofluorosilicic acid included.
“Those sources tell us that fluorosilicic acid is safe,” Anderson said, referring to peer-reviewed scientific studies. “Otherwise, it wouldn’t be used in 67 percent of the municipalities that use fluoride nationwide.”
One of the people Anderson has met with is Cindy Gaskill, an Aurora resident and an instructor in the dental hygiene department at Central Community College-Hastings.
In years of dental screening across the state, Gaskill said she can see an incredible difference between towns like Lincoln, Omaha and Kearney that fluoridate their water and those that don’t.
And in 13 years of screening in Aurora schools, she sees the need there, too.
“I know there is a problem,” Gaskill said. “There are kids who are not getting care.”
Of course, the fluoridation mandate the Legislature passed this spring is an unfunded one.
In Aurora, estimates placed the initial cost to the city of installing fluoridation equipment at $400,000, said City Administrator Mike Bair (He expects annual maintenance costs to be relatively minor).
That’s a cost that the city would need to go into debt to pay.
“We knew it was going to be a six-figure estimate,” Bair said. “Just not as high as $400,000.”