SPOKANE, Wash — In the 60s, the 80s, and most recently in 2000, Spokane voters have been asked whether they wanted to add fluoride to their drinking water. All three times they said no.
But that hasn’t stopped a consensus of public health advocates from pushing for it anyway, and now that consensus has gained enough momentum that the Spokane City Council is considering taking new action.
Spokane is the largest city in Washington that does not add extra fluoride to the water. Data from the Spokane Regional Health District shows children in Spokane have a higher rate of dental decay that those of children statewide. The same data shows children of color and children from lower-income households have it the worst.
That data, the momentum, and $4 million raised through non-profits to pay for the transition to fluoridated water has persuaded the council to take a new look at the hot-button issue, despite its past electoral failures.
“Frankly kids don’t vote, so they don’t have a say in it and they’re sort of inflicted with this dental problem that they don’t have any control over, or little control over,” said Council President Breean Beggs.
Also contributing to the momentum is the renewed focus on public health brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, says Beggs, as well as a heightened awareness of inequities brought about by racial justice protests.
But Mayor Nadine Woodward says regardless of your feelings on fluoridation itself, this is the wrong time and the wrong way to go about it.
“I don’t think that this is a COVID emergency, and I think that if we are going to go to the measures of fluoridating our water system that our community deserves to have a say, and it needs to be at the ballot,” she said.
Beggs says he’s seen polling that suggests voters’ mindsets have changed in the past 20 years, and that council may look into another advisory vote, but it’s unlikely.
“Maybe the community’s position has changed,” said Woodward. “But we need to find that out.”
Beggs also argues that when it comes to serious public health issues like this, a show of hands isn’t the most important factor.