The Lakewood Water District is looking at alternatives to putting fluoride into its water supply, just four months after residents voted in favor of adding the cavity-fighting compound.
The district recently got an unexpected cash incentive to fluoridate the drinking water of its roughly 70,000 customers. The Washington Dental Service Foundation is offering $364,560, which would lower the costs passed on to customers. Fluoridation is expected to raise their rates about 6 percent.
But district officials might turn down the money and disregard the Nov. 2 election because they’re researching oral health options that are more narrowly targeted and potentially cheaper. Instead of fluoridating the water, they’re exploring paying for fluoride varnishes on the teeth of children, said District General Manager Randy Black.
Lakewood resident Linda VanDyk said she’s angry the water district might ignore the will of the people.
“They had a vote and it passed and now they’re backtracking,” she said. “Quit exploring, get to work and put the fluoride in the water.”
But Black said alternative treatments didn’t come to Lakewood’s attention until after the election. The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department has offered them as a compromise to a half-dozen water providers that have resisted fluoridation and, unlike Lakewood, haven’t held an election on the issue.
“If we had known about it, we would have explored it earlier,” Black said.
He said the district board will explore the option at its monthly meeting today. It will accept or reject the foundation’s money by April 21.
Linda Farmer, another Lakewood resident who supports fluoridation, said the water district should at least hold another election or some other public process if it’s going to change course.
Commissioner Larry Ghilarducci said he doesn’t know if there would be another election. Black said there could be public hearings, phone surveys or another vote.
Fluoridation will cost about $880,000 in one-time start-up costs and then another $140,000 a year. Applying a varnish costs about $30 a person, a total of $115,000 a year, Black said. District officials are also concerned about the effects of fluoridated water on fish in nearby lakes and streams.
Ursula Hall, a Lakewood naturopathic physician opposed to fluoridation, said more people would vote for individual treatments if they were educated and given the option.
But Sean Pickard of the Washington Dental Service Foundation said adding fluoride to the water is the most effective way to prevent oral disease. Other methods are only temporary, can be more expensive in the long run and reach only a fraction of the population, he said.
The grant money his agency is offering comes from a pool of about $1.1 million set aside by the foundation and the health department. It was intended to help any water providers that went along with the health department’s 2002 fluoridation mandate.
The foundation and the health department originally said providers who fought the mandate would not be entitled to the money. In November, the health department said Lakewood probably wouldn’t get any funding because most of it was spoken for.
“But we saw the voters’ support of fluoridation,” Pickard said. “This grant is an attempt to improve the oral health of everyone in their district.”
About two years ago, the Lakewood Water District led a fight against the fluoridation mandate by the health department. It went all the way to the state Supreme Court, where Lakewood clearly won. Less clear was the fate of the half-dozen other local water systems that aren’t run by independent public districts.
Recently, the health department has been working with those other suppliers on alternatives such as mobile dental screening, sealants and topical varnishes.
Lakewood water commissioners said after the election that fluoride hadn’t been their preference, but they felt voters had the right to choose, so they put it on the Nov. 2 ballot. They were shocked that, by a slim margin, voters favored adding it.
About a dozen angry customers attended the first water district meeting after the election and implored commissioners to come up with a different solution. They said fluoride doesn’t prevent oral disease and amounts to forced medication. Some also said they didn’t understand the way the ballot measure was written and might have voted the wrong way.
If the board decides to continue with its water fluoridation plans, Lakewood customers will start paying for it by early 2006, Black said.
The Lakewood Water District serves the cities of Lakewood and Steilacoom, pockets of unincorporated Pierce County and the Summit Water and Supply Co.
What: The Lakewood Water District Board of Commissioners will discuss alternatives to adding fluoride to the drinking water supply. The meeting is open to the public.
When: Today, 3:30 p.m.
Where: The Lakewood Water District, 11900 Gravelly Lake Drive S.W.