Faced with overwhelming opposition that poured out in emotional speeches, the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Board decided Wednesday it wasn’t ready to make another attempt to force about a dozen water systems to fluoridate.
The health board next month will revisit the latest set of proposals, which would require all water systems serving more than 5,000 customers to put the compound in their drinking water.
But it would exclude the Lakewood Water District, whose 70,000 customers represent the bulk of the 238,000 people affected by a now-dead fluoride mandate.
Board members also said they would consider tooth-decay-fighting alternatives suggested by residents, such as public education and changing school nutrition programs.
Before the board postponed the issue, 30 people spoke and all but three opposed the latest plan. Teachers, parents, local elected officials, nutritionists and others criticized the fluoride, calling it toxic and poisonous, despite its endorsement by groups such as the American Dental Association and the American Medical Association.
Fluoride foes gave an earful to board members whose similar mandate two years ago was struck down by the state Supreme Court in May.
“Why should I ingest their medication?” said Heidi Stephens, a Tacoma resident. “It’s not a job of the board of health to prescribe medicine.”
For local water purveyors, it is a matter of retaining local control, and they took the case all the way to the state’s highest court. The health board lost, but now the department’s staff has taken the narrowest interpretation of the ruling and crafted a set of new proposals, which health department Director Dr. Federico Cruz-Uribe predicts would withstand a court challenge.
Cruz-Uribe said opponents might want the fluoride question to go away, but tooth decay in low-income households will not.
“I’m coming in front of you today with the same problem,” he told the board Wednesday.
The logic of his new approach goes like this: When the case went before the high court, the plaintiffs – which included Bonney Lake, Lakewood’s public water district and four private water companies – presented a set of questions that applied to their jurisdictions.
However, the Supreme Court ruled on only one question and dismissed the rest. By a vote of 6-3, the court said the health board doesn’t have “police power” to force the mandate in the Lakewood Water District.
Cruz-Uribe took that decision as affecting only public water districts. Then he crafted the new proposals, which require fluoridation for cities, towns and private companies but exempt Lakewood.
If approved, the mandate would affect water providers in communities including Puyallup, Sumner, Edgewood, Bonney Lake, Milton and Spanaway.
More than 300,000 residents of Tacoma, University Place, Fircrest, Parkland and local military bases already get fluoridated water.
The cities of Milton, Sumner and Parkland Light and Water followed the mandate from two years ago and began adding the compound to their drinking water within the last year.
Milton and Sumner stopped fluoridating after the Supreme Court ruling.
Parkland hasn’t stopped, but General Manager James Sherrill complained at Wednesday’s hearing that the cost of running the fluoridation system has been 50 percent more than the health department’s estimate.
Some local officials asked the health board to stop wasting money on legal fees. They included Ruston Mayor Kim Wheeler, who also opposed the health director’s attempt this year to snuff out smoking in bars and other public places.
“Dr. Cruz doesn’t know when to stop,” Wheeler said.
The health department has spent about $115,000 in legal expenses on the fluoride cause, spokeswoman Joby Winans said.