Despite heated opposition, Sonoma County health officials are building their case that adding fluoride to public water supplies is the most effective way to prevent tooth decay and reduce costs of dental care for the greatest number of Sonoma County residents — a strategy some fluoridation proponents said could translate into broader political support of the additive.
Health officials say the matter is urgent, with 51 percent of kids experiencing tooth decay, according to a health department survey of kindergartners and third-graders released last month.
“Tooth decay is one of the most common diseases among children and poses an immediate and long-term threat not just to the teeth of young children, but to their overall health and development,” according to findings in the November survey.
The health department report — one of three studies commissioned by county officials in two years — recommends fluoridation of county drinking water supplies. Two other health department analyses underway also endorse fluoridation of the county Water Agency’s supply, which serves 600,000 customers in the North Bay, including Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Cotati, Petaluma, Windsor, Sonoma, Valley of the Moon and parts of Marin.
Other reports gauge the cost of fluoridation and impact of the chemical compound on endangered and threatened fish such as coho and chinook salmon. Health officials pointed to the studies as evidence that adding fluoride to water improves public health without harming the environment.
“When fluoride is taken in, it reaches every tooth in every mouth, every day,” said Kim Caldewey, a manager with the county’s Department of Health Services. “We think it’s a very safe, extremely healthy measure to improve the dental health of a community.”
In a new report, county health officials now estimate the total cost of injecting fluoride into drinking water supplies at $587,000 per year, significantly less than the county’s previous estimate of $8.5 million for capital upgrades and $973,000 per year for operations.
County health officials studying the matter say the retooled estimate is based on better science. The new proposal, outlined in a 116-page report by the Colorado- based engineering firm MWH Americas Inc. could lay the groundwork for a countywide policy adding fluoride to drinking water supplies for the majority of Sonoma County residents. The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday is expected approve an additional $10,000 for the firm to complete its financial and engineering study.
The original $103,000 contract was awarded at a contentious Board of Supervisors meeting in February 2013, when dozens of speakers packed a hearing room to protest fluoridation of the county’s primary water supply. Fluoride opponents cited faulty science and health problems they say is associated with the additive.
“It’s not safe and it doesn’t work,” said Dawna Gallagher-Stroeh, a nutritionist and former Rohnert Park councilwoman who campaigned for Healdsburg’s failed referendum that would have removed fluoride from drinking water there. “But my first and foremost concern is that this would impose something on people, without their choice.”
Measure P passed with 64.4 percent of the vote, upholding fluoridation of drinking water in Healdsburg city limits.
“Healdsburg supported fluoridation of its water supply despite a vigorous campaign to take it out,” said Jim Wood, a dentist and former Healdsburg mayor who campaigned to keep the additive in Healdsburg’s supply.
“My hope is that the county would support adding fluoride to its water,” said Wood, who was elected in November to the state Assembly and has resigned his seat as mayor.
Fluoridation advocates say opponents are misguided and ignore overwhelming scientific data that fluoride added in minuscule amounts to the water — such as less than one part per million in Healdsburg — is essentially safe. Healdsburg residents have been drinking fluoridated water since 1952, when the city became one of the first in the state to add it. It is the only city in Sonoma County that adds fluoride to its drinking water.
The county health department updated its annual cost estimates in a report issued Nov. 14. This week, it is scheduled to issue a long-term study projecting costs over a 30-year period. The total cost for that period is projected at $12.8 million. The idea is to gather feedback from the Fluoride Advisory Committee at its next meeting, set for Dec. 8.
Recommendations are expected to go before the Board of Supervisors in the spring, officials said. Supervisors at that time would weigh in, and potentially move forward with fluoridation. Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who supports fluoridation, said Healdsburg’s vote to keep fluoridating its water indicates public support for the additive and potential buy-in from her board colleagues. “This board over the last four years has moved in the direction of adding fluoride to water supplies — it is a good public health care policy based on good science,” Zane said. “We are behind most other cities and counties in California.”
Health officials said fluoride would not only improve health in the county, but reduce costs associated with dentist and emergency visits.
“Fluoridation is an essential component in prevention of dental disease in both children and adults,” said Rita Scardaci, director of the county’s health department.
Some supervisors said public health benefits should be weighed against other budget priorities.
“We’re trying to balance fixing our roads, ensuring homeless are housed and we’re looking at universal preschool,” said Supervisor Efren Carrillo.
Carrillo acknowledged, however, potential cost savings and health benefits of fluoride.
“Fluoridation could give us the biggest bang for our buck, so I do believe that it could be one strategy to improve oral health countywide,” he said.
Gallagher-Stroeh, who opposes the additive, said she plans to introduce a ballot measure in 2016 to remove fluoride from Healdsburg’s water supply.
“I quit my job to do this full-time,” she said. “I’m going to start working on stopping this county- wide.”