Forty years ago, Port Angeles residents overwhelmingly voted against fluoridating their non-fluoridated drinking water.
City Council members then kept the water as it was.
In the Nov. 3 general election, citizens will be asked a similar question, with one big difference: Should the city stop injecting the mineral additive into the water system after doing so for nearly a decade?
Council members heard 80 minutes of public comments Tuesday night that generated 11 opinions against fluoridation and seven in favor.
Then they voted 4-3 to place an advisory measure on the November ballot that asks if city public works and utilities should continue the practice.
Residents who spoke against fluoridation said studies had linked it with tooth discoloration, thyroid problems, tumors, brittle bones, immune system damage, fetal brain development problems, cancer and reduced IQ.
Several also said they should have a choice in the matter and asserted that as things stand, they are being forcibly medicated by the city.
Those in favor, many of them dentists, said fluoridation has been a proven weapon against tooth decay for 70 years.
They blamed fluoride-related health issues on dosages far higher than those used in Port Angeles — 0.7 parts per million of fluorosilicic acid — and accused opponents of employing scare tactics.
One proponent said the amount is equivalent to 1 inch in 23 miles, while another said the ballot box was not the place to decide public health questions.
At next week’s 5 p.m. Tuesday work session, council members will discuss the advisory further and could schedule a public hearing that would be held before the election.
A ballot title must be submitted to the Clallam County Auditor’s Office by Aug. 4, the day of the primary election.
Voters eligible to cast ballots will include an estimated 1,500 Clallam Public Utility District residents who live outside the city limit and are supplied with city water, City Manager Dan McKeen said.
He said running the ballot measure is likely to cost the city between $1,000 and $1,500.
The answer that voters will give to the ballot query does not have the force of law, just as it didn’t in 1975.
If the city does nothing, fluoridation continues as is.
Council members are posing it in anticipation of a controversial decision they must make when a 10-year fluoridation contract with the Washington State Dental Foundation expires May 18.
The organization donated the fluoridation system in return for the city’s pledge to treat drinking water for a decade to fight tooth decay.
Once the contract expires, city officials are free to decide whether to fluoridate the water supply.
The city’s annual cost to add the fluorosilicic acid to the water system is $16,500 for the substance itself, $1,700 for labor and $1,700 for maintenance and repairs.
The system’s age makes it likely that equipment upgrades will be needed in the future, Public Works and Utilities Director Craig Fulton said Tuesday night.
Council members who chose to seek the opinion of voters Nov. 3 included Mayor Dan Di Guilio and council members Lee Whetham, Cherie Kidd and Sissi Bruch.
Deputy Mayor Patrick Downie and council members Dan Gase and Brad Collins opposed the move.
Di Guilio touted the benefits of fluoridation.
“I still feel the community should make that decision,” he said.
“I am also concerned about the fact that we do not have any empirical data that shows the last 10 years have made a difference in the children here.”
But Di Guilio also was concerned about how low-income children would obtain fluoride if it was not in their drinking water.
Bruch said she was opposed to fluoridation and that citizens are being forced to ingest it.
Citizens can obtain fluoride through sources other than the city’s water system, she said.
“I’m voting on the ethics of this rather than the science of this because I know this issue has multiple options,” she said.
Council members who opposed the advisory ballot urged further review before making a decision by the time the contract ends in May.
“An advisory vote is not really the thing that gets us what we need,” Gase said.
Collins said a Nov. 4 vote on the divisive issue will turn the City Council elections for seats held by Kidd, who is running for re-election, and Di Guilio, who is not, into a referendum on fluoridation.
“It’s inappropriate to confuse the issue of public health with a popularity question,” Collins said.
Downie urged the scheduling of a community forum to flesh out the facts on fluoridation.
“Would [an advisory ballot] produce the empirical data we all seek, and if so, how?” he asked.
Such a measure, though, is “democracy in action, and that’s what I’m here for,” Whetham said.
When the council approved fluoridation, “so many children were having cavities, and it was an issue that needed to be addressed by the council,” said Kidd, who made the motion to hold the advisory election.
“It’s an important issue to the people of Port Angeles,” she added.
“I would appreciate hearing from the community.”
The community showed up in force at Tuesday’s council meeting, packing council chambers.
“Port Angeles citizens have lost the power of refusing to be medicated,” said longtime fluoridation critic Dr. Eloise Kailin.
But Dr. Tom Locke, former health officer for Clallam and Jefferson counties, called fluoridation “one of the most successful public health strategies ever devised.”
The addition of fluoride to Port Angeles’ water has survived several challenges in court.
Forks and Port Angeles are the only two cities on the North Olympic Peninsula that fluoridate their drinking water.