The contentious water fluoridation issue goes back before Billings voters Nov. 5 because fluoride opponents have gathered enough valid petitions to force a vote.

Yellowstone County Election Administrator Duane Winslow said Friday that petitions signed by 6,827 registered Billings voters – 15 percent of the 45,373 people registered to vote in the 2001 city election – have been validated. As a result, Billings voters will be given the option to vote for or against adding fluoride to the city’s water supply.

Winslow said petitions signed by about 9,000 people were presented to his office. Some of the petition signers were ineligible because they live outside city limits, he said.

Billings residents have voted down fluoridation twice before, in 1967 and in 1982.

Opponents launched an anti-fluoride petition drive soon after the Billings City Council passed a resolution May 13 to add fluoride to city water.

“The majority of people we talked to were adamant about making this decision (adding fluoride) for themselves,” said Sarah Rollins, a fluoride opponent. She said it took 58 days to gather the required number of signatures to place the fluoride question on the ballot.

Rollins said fluoride opponents will kick off their “Pure Water Campaign” at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Casa Village. Fluoride opponents plan a comprehensive campaign that includes videos, brochures and billboards, she said.

The City Council approved fluoridation by a 9-1 vote. Fluoride is added to water in many cities to reduce the incidence of tooth decay. The natural fluoride level in the Yellowstone River averages about 0.4 parts per million. The city has proposed increasing the fluoride level to about 1 part per million.

After fluoride opponents launched their petition drive, city officials debated whether to challenge the legality of the anti-fluoride referendum process. In 1998, the Montana Supreme Court ruled that an ordinance requiring residents of Whitehall to install water meters was not subject to referendum because it was more an administrative than a legislative decision.

The city could have used the same argument in the fluoridation issue, but decided not to, said City Administrator Dennis Taylor.

“The city has to move at the speed of democracy,” Taylor said. “If the citizens of Billings decide to vote against fluoridation, we wouldn’t recommend moving forward with it even if we could.”

Water fluoridation has been endorsed by a wide variety of health organizations including the American Dental Association, the American Medical Association, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher.

Over the years, opponents have used a variety of arguments against fluoride. It has been labeled a poison, a carcinogen and a communist plot.

Lora Schultz, a public health nurse and the health coordinator at Head Start, said fluoride supporters plan to continue their educational efforts to counter the opponents’ arguments.

“We’ll try to minimize the fear factor that the fluorophobes are using,” she said.