The Board of Health made the decision Wednesday after meeting in executive session to discuss the possibility of lawsuits from fluoride opponents.
No other community in Washington – and possibly the country – has conducted an environmental review of drinking water fluoridation, said health department director Federico Cruz-Uribe.
Washington statutes are unclear on whether an environmental review is required, but the board and the health department decided to do the study to quiet concerns and make it easier for other health boards to mandate on fluoridation, Cruz-Uribe said.
“We want this to be a slam-dunk,” he said. “Since we’re setting a precedent for boards of health and their authority, we wanted to make sure we had clear documentation that fluoride doesn’t affect health or the environment.”
The review will take at least two months but might not derail the current schedule that orders fluoridation by Jan. 1, 2004, he said.
Motivated by what health officials describe as an epidemic of tooth decay, the board voted unanimously in April to require fluoridation of all water systems in the county that serve more than 5,000 people.
Fluoridation will affect about 240,000 residents in Lakewood, Steilacoom, Puyallup, Bonney Lake, Sumner, Milton, Edgewood, Parkland and Spanaway.
About 300,000 Pierce County residents – mostly in Tacoma, Fircrest and the military bases – already receive fluoridated water.
Most of the 14 water districts affected by the mandate have said they will reluctantly comply. But a few water utilities and the community of Edgewood are actively opposing the fluoridation mandate and have threatened to challenge the health board in court.
The environmental study was spurred by a letter last month from a group called Citizens Opposing Fluoridation in Pierce County. The group argued that an environmental study was necessary.
Some environmental organizations, including The Sierra Club, are concerned that fluoride discharged from storm water drains and sewage treatment plants can harm salmon and other aquatic plants and animals.
The health department estimates it will cost about $1.5 million to install fluoridation equipment. With help from a $420,000 grant from Washington Dental Services Foundation, the agency has offered to pay half the cost. The remainder would be recouped through higher water bills.
Nine water districts have signed letters of agreement, to ensure a share of the matching funds.
But Jim Sherrill, general manager of Parkland Light & Water Co., angrily objected at Wednesday’s meeting to a provision that would prohibit water districts from joining any legal challenge if they accept matching funds.
“Your blackmailing us to withhold funds is laughable,” he told the board. “I can tell you now that people are going to file suit.”
Three communities below the 5,000-resident trigger – Fife, DuPont and McKenna – are interested in fluoridating voluntarily if they can share in the matching money, said Steve Marek of the health
Pierce County’s health board is one of the few in the nation to mandate water fluoridation. But Cruz-Uribe said tooth decay clearly is a public health issue within the board’s authority.
Since the April vote, health department directors across the state have congratulated the county on its stand and said they will follow suit if the mandate stands up in court, Cruz-Uribe said.
“They’re all waiting to see what happens here.”