SAN ANTONIO — Reviving a bitter 34-year debate, the City Council has ordered a November special election to decide whether fluoride finally should be added to the city’s drinking water to promote dental health.
For proponents, it could be another tough sell for an idea twice rejected by San Antonio voters.
“It is truly a cumulative poison,” opposition leader Kay Turner said last week in an unsuccessful plea for the council to scuttle the Nov. 7 election plan.
“And if I just don’t want to drink fluoride, I shouldn’t have to,” Turner said.
In most big cities, it’s assumed that supplementing natural fluoride in drinking water prevents tooth decay. Yet, fluoridation was defeated here in 1966 and 1985 and it’s still portrayed as a toxic substance that government is obsessed with pouring down people’s throats.
San Antonio is not the only city that does not add fluoride to its drinking water.
San Diego, Calif., only recently mandated its use. At least six other major cities do not add fluoride — San Jose and Fresno, Calif.; Portland, Ore.; Tucson, Ariz.; Salt Lake City; and Honolulu.
San Antonio Councilman Ed Garza sponsored the election proposal. He predicted that this outcome would be different. Growing piles of medical studies have verified the benefits of fluoridation and eroded opposition among the city’s 1 million residents, he said.
“The timing is right and the need is there. San Antonio has a large population of individuals who can’t even afford dental care. It’s a travesty in our community that we have to deal with — and put behind us,” Garza said.
Both sides conceded that the last debate left a bad political aftertaste. In 1985, then-Mayor Henry Cisneros and the council unilaterally voted to add fluoride but the plan was never implemented. Voters mounted a petition drive and nullified the action in an acrimonious recall election.
“The big difference this time is we’re calling for a vote, asking the voters to make that choice,” Garza said.
Calling fluoridation an “extremely safe, economical and effective public health measure,” Metropolitan Health District Director Fernando Guerra assured the council that 50 years of research “have shown a 40 to 50 percent reduction of decay among children” whose water was fluoridated.
Guerra said San Antonians were missing out on “one of the 10 major and truly outstanding public health achievements of the 20th century in those communities where this has taken place.”
While the proposal is backed by medical and neighborhood groups, a grass-roots opposition network led by Turner is preparing for what they call “war.”
A leader of the 1985 anti-fluoride campaign, consumer watchdog C.A. Stubbs, said he’s ready “to take these bastards on again, pardon my French. They don’t know what the word `no’ means. This is a contrived, engineered crisis,” he said.
“There are dozens of ways to get it without forcing it on the rest of us,” he said. Stubbs complained that all water would be treated but less than 1 percent of it would be consumed by humans.
San Antonio Water System President Mike Thuss said the treatment would cost about $640,000 a year and “the impact on the average water bill would be less than 1 percent or about 11 cents,” he said.
Some cities, such as Houston, have what experts call adequate amounts of naturally occurring fluoride in their drinking water, so none is added. But San Antonians are among the 30 percent of Texans whose drinking water has lower-than-ideal levels of fluoride, state health officials said.
Garza said if science doesn’t persuade voters, perhaps new financial data will. At the request of the Legislature that met in 1999, the Texas Department of Health issued a report in May saying fluoridation could save $1 million a year in Medicaid dental costs in Bexar County, or $18 to $20 a year per treated child.
“It is important to remember that water fluoridation benefits water consumers of all ages. The whole population benefits in decay prevention and, ultimately, in dental costs,” the state agency concluded. A report from the U.S. Surgeon General, also issued in May, delivered virtually the same message.
But Stubbs called the state’s report hogwash.
“If folks that are fussing about this would use a little of their money for toothpaste and mouthwash instead of beer and lottery tickets, they would very easily be able to leave the rest of us alone,” he said.
Scientists around the globe have opposed fluoridation over the years, calling it dangerous or of no proven benefit. A South African doctor recently blamed riots on fluoridation. And from its earliest deployment 50 years ago, fluoridation has been assailed as a communist plot and an example of the federal government overreaching its authority.
Some opponents, many of them elderly, said simply that their teeth are fine without it. But at the public hearing Thursday, opponents young and old claimed fluoride weakens bones and causes motor difficulties, memory loss, lethargy, headaches, depression, confusion and stained teeth.
None of those claims is supported by credible science, supporters counter.
Others foes cited civil libertarian arguments. One resident wondered if Viagra, Rogaine or Ecstasy would be added next. Most complained angrily that the council was ignoring previous votes and some protested that the proponents should have conducted a petition drive to get the measure on the ballot. Instead, a unanimous vote by the council put it there.
Pro-fluoride activists are organized to contest such arguments. They point out the city has grown by 400,000 people since the last vote, when the proposal was defeated by a narrow margin.
“We know we’re going to hear that (opposition claims), but when we have the leading health professionals and organizations advocating this, that puts to rest some of those critics,” Garza said.