TOOELE — When residents here vote next week, they will be asked whether they want fluoride added to their drinking water, six years after voters defeated that same idea by a nearly two-to-one margin.
Tooele dentist Dr. Clair Vernon and Tooele County Health Department director Myron Bateman asked the City Council last month to consider placing the question of fluoridation back on the ballot because, as they see it, Tooele’s changing demographics mean there are a lot of new voters, many of them young families with children who could especially benefit from fluoride.
“I still know it’s an important thing, and there’s a lot of newer, younger families that have moved into Tooele,” Vernon said. “I thought maybe now we can get it to pass. It’s beneficial to everyone. It’s like putting money in a bank. The sooner you start in your life, the better the end result.”
But its approval in Tuesday’s election is far from a sure thing.
Opponents are many and varied — Vernon calls them the “vocal minority” — and their reasons for their opposition are diverse, ranging from health and safety concerns to the question of the right to choose.
Annette York, a Tooele mother and grandmother, said she sees the benefits of fluoride but believes it should be left up to parents to decide when and how to give it to their children.
“I gave my kids fluoride, and my kids have good teeth, but the thing that troubles me is that when I was raising my kids my pediatrician had me not start fluoride until they were a little bit older,” she said.
“They don’t continue giving it to them into their teenage years. The thing that concerns me is that a lot of people’s rights to clean water are taken away if we put it in the water system.”
She said she worries about the cumulative effect of things being added to the water. Such things as chlorination, she said, are essential for public health and safety, but water officials should draw the line when it comes to unnecessary additions like fluoride.
“I’m not one of the ones who go around screaming, ‘Poison, poison,’ ” she said.
Others, however, are. Many opponents say fluoride is a health risk. Campaign literature and many Web sites link fluoride to thyroid disease, diseases of the brain and eventual damage to children’s teeth, among other things.
But Vernon said fluoridation has been practiced for 60 years, since Grand Rapids, Mich., first added fluoride to its drinking water in 1945. Today, 43 of the nation’s 50 largest cities have fluoridated drinking water. Voters in Salt Lake and Davis counties have approved water fluoridation in recent years.
Vernon said Tooele’s proposal calls for boosting the water’s naturally occurring fluoride level of 0.2 parts per million to the accepted standard of 1 part per million. He said people have been drinking fluoride in their water “since Day 1 of man’s existence. Any time water passes through the ground it picks up minerals, and fluoride is one of those minerals.”
In the early 1900s, many residents of the U.S. Southwest were drinking water that naturally had fluoride in amounts up to 8 parts per million. It stained their teeth, but it also kept them decay-resistent. He said research has since shown that 1 part per million maintains the anti-decay properties of fluoride without the teeth staining.
“Anything in excess or used incorrectly is harmful, whether it be food or a car or gasoline,” Vernon said.
“Time has proven (fluoride’s) effectiveness, and I feel bad that there’s a paranoia and scare tactics out there that make people afraid. There’s no reason to be afraid of 1 part per million fluoride in the water.”
But opponents like York say that fluoride, good or bad, should not be forced on people who don’t want to drink it.
“I feel bad because I realize there are a lot of people who could benefit from it, but it just seems like it’s taking away a lot of people’s rights to not have it in the water by forcing it down our throats,” she said. “There are other ways you can get it besides in the water.”
She said that the most vocal proponents of fluoridation seem to be dentists. She believes those dentists should consider opening their offices on specific days to provide fluoride for children of poor families who couldn’t afford it otherwise.