ESCONDIDO – There’s a chance that the city’s decision to add fluoride to its water supply could be reversed, depending on the outcome of this fall’s City Council race.
The council approved fluoridation on a 3-2 vote in 2001, with council members Ed Gallo and Marie Waldron dissenting. With two council seats open in the Nov. 2 election, including Gallo’s, the narrow majority could swing the other way.
So far, at least one challenger, former Mayor Wil Mason, has expressed his opposition to fluoride. Another candidate, businessman Sam Abed, said he’s studying the issue and hasn’t made a decision.
Proponents, including nearly all public dental and health organizations, say fluoride has been proven to be a safe and effective tool in preventing tooth decay. It has been used for decades by most major cities in the United States.
Opponents, however, argue that Escondido is force-medicating its residents. They also question the safety of fluoridation and warn of harmful effects.
Specifically, critics point to Escondido’s plan to use a chemical – hydrofluorosilic acid – which contains minute amounts of arsenic and lead, to add fluoride to the water, which they maintain could lead to higher incidences of cancer.
Escondido officials point out that most cities use the same chemical, and that the amounts of trace chemicals are so small they are harmless.
On Aug. 30, Escondido became the first city or water district in San Diego County to use fluoride.
The maiden voyage lasted less than 24 hours, until city workers shut down the fluoridation system because of an equipment failure. Glen Peterson, the city’s interim utilities manager, said he has ordered a new part for a damaged flow meter and expects to begin adding fluoride again in a few days.
Councilman Tom D’Agosta, who voted in favor of fluoridation and is seeking re-election, said he believes the fluoride issue has been “beaten to death.”
“It’s something that’s been researched for years,” he said. “It’s something that’s mandated by the state and if there’s a problem somebody should take it up with the state.”
A 1996 state law, which has not been widely enforced, requires larger cities to begin fluoridation when funds become available.
The Escondido City Council accepted a $321,000 grant in 2001 to buy equipment for the project. It’s unclear whether the city would be forced to repay the money if a new council ordered a stop to fluoridation.
Tania Bowman, a child-advocacy lawyer running for the council, said she’s convinced that fluoridation will help prevent tooth decay in underprivileged children.
“All I can tell you is what the research shows is that it’s something that’s been going on for a long time and it’s safe,” Bowman said. “I believe those studies and I feel comfortable with it.”
If elected, Mason, who was recalled from office in 1973, said he would seek an immediate halt to fluoridation. “If that’s all it does is help your teeth from cavities, there’s a lot of ways to do that,” Mason said. “I’d be opposed to it.”
Gallo and Waldron have both said they remain adamantly opposed to fluoridation.
“If it’s that safe and good, then why is there a warning label on the back of your toothpaste?” Gallo asked. “That should give everybody cause for concern.”
One possible wild card is Abed, whose campaign leads the race in fund raising.
While campaigning, Abed said he’s talked to several people with strong beliefs on both sides of the issue but has yet to make up his mind.
“It’s such an important issue that affects the health of the community,” he said. “I think I owe it to the voters to research this issue thoroughly. There is strong medical evidence on both sides . . . but I need to get more information.”
Despite the recent controversy – dozens of complaints have been filed and an ongoing lawsuit seeks to stop the city from fluoridating – most of the candidates believe the fluoride issue pales in comparison to other pressing matters, including growth and a public-safety bond measure, which is also on the fall ballot.
Craig Gustafson: (760) 737-7559; email@example.com