The Pierce County Fluoride War might finally be over.
But only if someone comes up with the money to fund a compromise plan being worked out between the two sides in the fight.
The proposal: Put dental workers in elementary schools to coat kids’ teeth with sealants and fluoride varnishes, so long as parents consent.
The Tacoma-Pierce County Board of Health has battled for more than two years to get fluoride into the drinking water of the more than 50 percent of county homes that don’t have it. The goal is to improve the health of kids’ teeth.
County water companies and many communities said no to fluoride because they didn’t want to be stuck with the bill. Others said they didn’t want the government forcing chemicals into their water, doubting the scientific consensus that fluoride is safe and helps teeth.
Most thought the health board’s big loss came last May, when the state Supreme Court said the board didn’t have the authority to force Lakewood to fluoridate.
The ruling overturned a 2002 mandate that sought to do that, plus get other areas to fluoridate, as well.
Lakewood and other communities spent about $200,000 to fight the mandate.
But the board rallied last fall and proposed a new mandate, one that didn’t include Lakewood, which voted to fluoridate on its own anyway. Members were sure their second mandate would survive another legal challenge.
With residents again regrouping for defensive action, the health board said in December it would consider alternatives. Ambassadors from both sides went to work on a compromise and revealed their plan in late January.
Under the proposal, youngsters would have their teeth coated with protective sealants. They also would be referred to dentists as needed.
Also part of the plan: education about tooth care, distribution of toothbrushes and toothpaste, and a push to reduce kids’ consumption of soft drinks.
First up would be about 60 elementary schools in Bethel, Dieringer, Fife, Franklin, Pierce, Puyallup and Sumner school districts. Kids most at risk for dental problems – those in low-income households – would be the initial focus. Eventually, other schools and a broader swath of the student population would be included.
The program has worked elsewhere and “is second only to fluoridation in terms of effectiveness,” said Rick Porso, public health manager at the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.
The cities and water companies that didn’t like fluoridation said they think the new approach is great. But they still don’t want to pay for it.
Under the plan, each water provider – either the city or its water company – would pay according to the number of low-income children that would be treated. The total cost would be about $322,470 a year for one roving tooth squad to treat 10,749 kids.
Milton, with 257 children eligible, would have the lowest bill at $7,710. Puyallup, with 2,294, would shoulder the biggest chunk at $68,820.
Prices would go up with a second tooth squad.
“We don’t have $70,000 extra in our budget,” said Puyallup Mayor Kathy Turner. “We have more pressing issues,” such as keeping the police department running.
“We haven’t been in the health business, and haven’t got the money to get into it,” said Milton Mayor Katrina Asay.
Porso and others in the health department, anticipating such problems, are looking for grants and to get Medicaid to chip in.
The final decisions from cities and water companies on funding the plan are due to the health board in April.
Already, board chairman Kevin Phelps has no patience for cries of “poor.”
The proposed program is much cheaper than fluoridation, whose price tag was once put as high as $1.5 million.
The cost of the new plan, he said, “could very easily be built into rates and have a negligible impact on users.”
And the board has one last trump card.
“We believe we have the legal authority now that Lakewood is out of the picture to require fluoridation in Pierce County,” Phelps said.
The annual bill for a proposed school-based oral health program, an alternative to mandatory fluoridation:
Number of eligible low-income children at $ per child | Annual cost
Sumner | 827 | $24,810
Summit | 613 | $18,390
Spanaway | 2,122 | $63,660
Southwood/Rainier View | 1,783 | $53,490
Puyallup | 2,294 | $68,820
Milton | 257 | $7,710
Fruitland | 686 | $20,580
Firgrove | 765 | $22,950
Edgewood | 285 | $8,550
Bonney Lake | 1,117 | $33,510
Total | 10,749 | $322,470
Source: Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department