ARCATA — It’s too big of an issue for just five people to decide.
That was the consensus of the Arcata City Council after a nearly three-hour discussion on the city’s almost 50-year-old Fluoride Program. The council had been asked to review, discuss and possibly repeal the program, which has added fluoride to the city’s water since 1956.
After hearing testimony from about 30 people on both sides of the issue — those opposed to fluoridated water and those for it — the councilmembers unanimously decided the issue should be left for the people to decide. The council recommended those concerned about the fluoride in the city’s water come up with a ballot initiative, which could be voted on in November.
Concerned citizens, children’s advocates and health care providers all spoke at the City Council meeting Wednesday night. About 20 people spoke against the city adding fluoride to water, while around 10 spoke in favor of it.
Eric Lust with the city’s wastewater division presented the council with a brief lesson in chemistry as he explained how sodium fluoride is added to Arcata’s water. Although sodium fluoride can become toxic in large doses, he said, so can table salt. He also said those uncomfortable with the idea of additives in water “have valid concerns, in my opinion.”
Humboldt County Superintendent of Schools Garry Eagles said dental disease is the most common disease affecting children, and said fluoridated water was beneficial to preventing it. Taking fluoride out of the water, he said, would have a detrimental effect on the health of children who live below the poverty line.
Many other speakers spoke to the importance of having fluoridated water, which benefits low-income children without access to adequate dental care. Another important issue raised was the lack of dental coverage for low-income people, especially children.
While those concerned about fluoridated water agreed low-income children should be taken into account, they also said the potential harms of fluoride could outweigh the benefits. Studies stating fluoride contributes to everything from osteoporosis to Alzheimer’s disease and arthritis to cancer were cited.
Out of all the studies cited at the meeting, one thing remained clear — there are an abundance of studies on the subject, and each one seems to say something different. While one study may claim fluoride causes significant health problems, another may state it virtually has no effect at all. Still, other studies point to the benefits of fluoride.
Dentist Brian Smith said fluoride is almost as toxic as arsenic and more toxic than lead, and asked the City Council to remove fluoride from the city’s water.
Many citizens had concerns about fluoride’s effect on the environment. About 1 percent of the city’s water is ingested by humans, and the rest is returned to the environment.
Other people simply didn’t like the fact that they had no choice in the matter. They argued the government was overstepping its boundaries by dictating what goes into people’s bodies.
“The city’s job is take care of my water, but not my teeth,” Fhyre Phoenix said. “That’s my business.”
One citizen brought up the point that the city purchases its sodium fluoride from the corporation Kaiser Aluminum.
“Aren’t we talking about corporate personhood here?” she said in reference to the city’s recently passed Corporate Personhood Resolution.
After listening to the public testimony, the City Council appeared a bit overwhelmed by all of the information. Arcata Mayor Bob Ornelas wholeheartedly thanked the public for participating in the educational discussion.
Councilmembers Elizabeth Conner, Michael Machi and Connie Stewart were all in favor of keeping the Fluoride Program in place for the sake of its benefits for children’s teeth. Councilman Dave Meserve said he would err on the side of caution and choose to remove the fluoride. All councilmembers agreed, however, that ultimately it should be left up to the public.
“I’m personally not willing to sit here and have the five of us make a decision I know will be detrimental to our children within the next five years,” Stewart said.
Meserve said the matter was one of the hardest things the council has had to decide, and called the issue one of basic freedom.
“Perhaps a basic freedom is to have water without all these question marks around it,” he said.
Ornelas said the matter should come down to a vote.
“Democracy rules and I think that’s how it should be dealt with,” he said.