OMAHA, Neb. – Voters in at least 61 Nebraska communities will decide Nov. 4 whether they want fluoride added to their water supplies, the result of a new state law that requires cities to opt out if they don’t want the chemical.
Although fluoride has been shown to prevent tooth decay, some people believe the substance is poisonous. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Nebraska State Board of Health both say fluoridation of water is safe.
“People are being scared to death of adding fluoride to water,” said Sen. Joel Johnson of Kearney, who sponsored the pro-fluoride bill. It applies to cities with more than 1,000 people.
Johnson called fluoride “the cheapest way of improving the oral health of all of us in the state, and to do it very inexpensively.”
Medicaid dental programs cost as much as 50 percent less in fluoridated communities, according to the CDC.
The state health board said that for every $1 spent on fluoridation, $38 is saved on dental treatments.
Most of Nebraska’s population is served by public water systems that add fluoride to water. Forty-one systems are naturally fluoridated.
But 64 cities with more than 1,000 residents haven’t had fluoride.
“It is controversial,” said Sen. Don Preister of Bellevue, who led the opposition to the bill. “It is an industrial, hazardous waste chemical. For those people who understand what it really is, they would certainly be wanting to have the benefit to vote it down.”
Preister said some research links fluoride to health problems, and shows that it doesn’t necessarily prevent tooth decay. Much of the information Preister shared with lawmakers earlier this year comes from the Fluoride Action Network, a group that says its goal is to spread awareness about the toxicity of fluoride.
Dr. Jessica Meeske, a pediatric dentist in Hastings, said the opponents “use a lot of scare tactics and they quote a lot of junk science.”
“Most of their arguments tend to center around the idea that this is a conspiracy theory, they don’t trust government, and that somehow fluoride is going to be dangerous to their health,” she said.
But others object because the chemical could cost cities. Those that don’t currently fluoridate could have capital costs of about $5,000 per treatment point, which means larger cities such as Hastings could have to pay as much as $100,000 up front to start fluoridating water.
The CDC says it costs between 50 cents and $3 a year per resident to fluoridate water systems, depending on the size of the city. It costs less in larger cities.
Gov. Dave Heineman vetoed the bill earlier this year, calling it an unfunded mandate. State senators overrode his veto.
The opt-out vote will be the second for many cities. Some cities have already opted out of a law passed in the 1970s requiring fluoride.
Towns and cities that don’t fluoridate have until June 2010 to opt out of the law. Those places where there is enough naturally occurring fluoride don’t have to add any.
Although Preister wasn’t successful in defeating the bill, he said he was glad it at least gives communities the chance for local control.
Preister doesn’t object to fluoride being applied at the dentist, where he said it can actually benefit teeth without going directly into the body every day.