Redding voters Nov. 5 will decide Measure A, a ballot initiative having something to do with the city’s water supply.
That’s about the only hard fact surrounding the measure. Everything else depends on whether you believe water fluoridation is an equal-opportunity hedge against tooth decay or a conspiracy to turn humans into little industrial waste dumps.
Measure A would forbid the city from adding chemicals to the water supply that lack federal Food and Drug Administration approval for their claims as weapons against tooth decay.
That list of banned chemicals would include hydrofluorosilicic acid, the fluoridation compound Redding may use.
About 120 million of the 160 million people drinking fluoridated water in the United States swallow this chemical in microscopic volumes. Yet regulators have never tested it for toxicity. The National Toxicology Program (NTP) agreed in April to study the compound.
Measure A doesn’t mention the water fluoridation program Redding’s City Council endorsed in September 2001.
Even so, a yes vote on Measure A is essentially a no vote on fluoridation. And a no vote on Measure A says yes to fluoridation.
The Measure A ballot language is courtesy of Citizens for Safe Drinking Water, a San Diego-based organization that’s fighting fluoridation nationwide.
Citizens for Safe Drinking Water has used nearly identical ordinances to defeat fluoridation in across the country, most recently in Modesto and Flagstaff, Ariz.
Yet even if Redding voters approve Measure A, there’s no guarantee the citizen initiative would stop the city from fluoridating with hydrofluorosilicic acid or some other compound.
The state of California has threatened to override Measure A if voters approve it. And the City Council must also vote again on the program. Those actions are on hold until after the election.
Michel Czehatowski chairs Redding Citizens for Safe Drinking Water, the local grass-roots group that collected more than 4,000 signatures earlier this year to qualify Measure A for the November ballot. Czehatowski’s Redding store specializes in herbal medicine.
Fluoridation supporters concerned about health and safety should vote for Measure A, Czehatowski said.
“This is not a yes or no vote on fluoridation,” said Czehatowski.
California law already requires cities with 10,000 or more water hookups to fluoridate. Redding’s water utility serves about 25,500 hookups.
“What we are trying to do is establish safety criteria so if anybody wants to fluoridate or add something else to the water there are standards,” he said.
Yet Measure A’s real weapon is bureaucratic jurisdiction, not health and safety regulations.
The FDA approves fluoride in toothpaste, mouth rinse and bottled water. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates the chemicals that cities put in their water supplies.
The EPA allows water fluoridation with hydrofluorosilicic acid and other chemicals. The agency caps treatment at 4 parts per million (ppm) of fluoride in municipal taps. Redding would fluoridate at 1 ppm.
Measure A supporters believe the FDA must step in if cities add chemicals to their wells and treatment plans that go beyond making the water safe to drink. They recognize that chlorine and other toxic chemicals are necessary to stop diseases that can spread through the water supply.
Should the city decide to go ahead with fluoridation, Measure A would order officials to find an FDA-approved chemical to add to Redding’s two treatment plants and 14 wells.
Czehatowski doubts such a chemical exists. And that’s the point of Measure A, he said.
Before the FDA could approve chemicals for community water fluoridation, the agency would have to confirm that people drinking fluoridated tap water don’t suffer higher hip-fracture and bone cancer rates, Czehatowski said. The FDA would have to show fluoridated water is safe for chemically sensitive people, for children and the elderly.
And the FDA would have to show that people drinking fluoridated water enjoy substantially less tooth decay than people using only fluoride toothpaste, fluoride tablets, rinses or gels.
Czehatowski acknowledged that the studies suggesting links between fluoride and osteoporosis, bone cancer, hyperactivity and diminished intelligence are inconclusive at best.
But if the city proposes to add a chemical to the water, it must prove beyond reasonable doubt that such compounds are safe. Studies raising questions about fluoridation ought to make officials think twice before going ahead with the program, he said. And they ought to make citizens think twice before accepting it.
“People say fluoride has been used for 50 years and that’s a long time, but maybe they didn’t notice the health problems,” said Czehatowski.
He points to asbestos insulation, lead in paint, lead in gasoline, cigarettes — all once thought safe but now considered hazardous.
At the very least, Czehatowski said, the Shasta County Public Health Department should determine how much fluoride Redding residents consume in tooth paste, as well as foods and juices processed with fluoridated water. Perhaps people in the Redding area already get enough fluoride.
Dean Germano is executive director at Shasta Community Health Center in Redding. The nonprofit organization, which serves low-income people throughout the county, has almost single-handedly bankrolled the campaign against Measure A with a $5,000 contribution.
Water fluoridation is established across much of the United States, he said. Some 160 million Americans consume fluoridated water. Of the nation’s 50 largest cities, 47 are fluoridated, including Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Germano knows Measure A supporters will say that leaders in those cities did not consult citizens before fluoridating. But for him and other fluoride supporters, water fluoridation is a public health matter, not a political issue.
“Why fluoridate? Why do we immunize children? Why do we wear seat belts?” said Germano.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers water fluoridation the single most cost-effective medical intervention possible. The fluoridation needed to stop one cavity cost $4.71, compared with $65 for a filling, a 2001 CDC study claims.
Experts proved decades ago that water fluoridation fights tooth decay. There are some 3,700 studies verifying fluoridation’s effectiveness, supporters claim.
More recent studies have linked poor oral health to diabetes and heart disease, Germano said.
That means tooth decay is a bigger health threat than medical experts believed before. And that means fluoridation is a more important public health measure than ever — especially in poorer communities like Redding, where tooth decay is higher, Germano said.
Dental health among the city’s 12-year-olds is 33 percent worse than the nationwide average. About half of Redding’s sixth-graders had at least one cavity, a Shasta Oral Health Task Force study claims. That coalition of doctors, dentists and educators helped persuade the City Council to accept water fluoridation.
There’s no controversy over fluoride as a safe tool in the fight against tooth decay in the mainstream medical community, Germano said. A “fringe group of extremists” has stirred up those fears.
“It’s all about trust,” Germano said. “Who are you going to trust — your family doctor and your dentist or a biofeedback specialist?”