Fluoridation in Monterey County has a contentious past, a low-key present and a future that will be active but uncertain, those on both sides of the divisive issue said.

“We’re probably two to three years away from being able to bring a proposal forward,” said Wayne Green, assistant to Salinas’ city manager.

Generating plans, getting grants for studies, informing the public about fluoridation — all take time. All must be done, Green and others said.

Fluoride added to drinking water supplies helps reduce tooth decay, proponents such as the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. surgeons general say.

“Fluoridation is the single most cost-effective way to fight dental disease, and it’s safe,” said Debra Diaz with the non-profit Children’s Oral Health Program of Monterey County.

All wrong, opponents say.

Fluoride is toxic, they say.

The fluoride put into drinking water is the same as that added to rat poison as the “deadly active ingredient,” said David Dilworth, a retired engineer who directs Helping Our (Monterey) Peninsula’s Environment, a non-profit.

“Fluoride is a known poison and not a nutrient, and they want to put it in our drinking water?” he said.

Read the label on any tube of toothpaste containing fluoride, he said. One such label reads: “If more than used for brushing is accidentally swallowed, get medical help or contact a Poison Control Center right away.”

Said Dilworth: “You won’t find that on your Cocoa Puffs.”

Of the 50 largest U.S. cities, 43 have community water fluoridation, CDC figures show. Fluoridation reaches 62 percent of the population linked to public water supplies.

About 75 percent of California residents now drink water from systems which add, or will add, fluoride.

Not so in Monterey County.

While small amounts of the chemical exist naturally in water, no company in the county now adds fluoride.

In 2002, the Monterey County civil grand jury addressed the issue. It called upon the county to take the lead in getting local water systems to adopt fluoridation.

On March 19, by a 5-0 vote, the supervisors rejected that.

“The benefits are too vague … and the risks are too high,” Supervisor Dave Potter said at the time.

A week later, however, the Salinas City Council backed the grand jury’s recommendations.

It voted to work with the Monterey County Fluoridation Task Force. The intent is to educate the public about oral health issues and to seek money for fluoridation.

That move is misguided because the grand jury failed to look at data on fluoridation’s dangers, Dilworth said.

“They only looked at pro arguments,” he said. “This is a basic public health and safety issue, and I wish they had read the science.”

Those opposed to fluoridation object to it for many reasons. People range in sensitivity to such chemicals, for example. It would be difficult to supply the optimal dose for all, they say.

Resistance also rests on a broader philosophical basis. People object to “non-consensual medication” of the public.

For those reasons and others, most European governments have rejected fluoridation of public drinking water, opponents say.

To Len Foster, director of the Monterey County Health Department, putting optimal amounts of fluoride in water is not much different from folic acid in grain products.

“But there are those in opposition to anything that involves government telling people what to ingest,” Foster said.

“I understand their perspective. It’s just a disagreement.”

Since the supervisors’ March meeting, there’s been little follow-up.

Attention has focused on budget concerns and the financial crisis at Natividad Medical Center.

Yet the future promises more activity, Foster and others said.

The next step would be a meeting of the Monterey County Fluoridation Task Force with CalWater, which supplies most of Salinas.

“We’d look at issues such as cost and how you’d find money for re-engineering and maintenance and operation,” Foster said.

“The City Council vote is at least a political signal that the elected officials are supportive,” he said.

When fluoridation does resurface on the public agenda, it will do so city by city, Diaz predicted.

To get Salinas going would take $2 million to $3 million in setup costs, she said. Maintenance would be minimal. Cost to the citizen would be “less than half a regular filling over a lifetime.”

Diaz serves on the Fluoridation Task Force, which includes representatives from the Health Department, the Monterey Bay Dental Society, Clinica de Salud as well as pediatric dentists.

The Task Force and CHOP are regularly engaged in efforts to educate the public about fluoride.

Fluoridation is important but only one component of dental health, Diaz said. Flossing, brushing and having a dentist check for high levels of cavity-causing bacteria are also essentials, she said.

Still, fluoridation must remain on the public agenda, Diaz said.

In 2000, DentiCal, a state dental program, spent $4.7 million on dental care in Monterey County alone, Diaz said.

Two million of that went for children ages 15 and younger.

About 51 percent of children five and younger have some form of dental problems, Diaz said.

“They’re sitting there with decay in their teeth and often in pain,” Diaz said. “Fluoridation, over time, could help eliminate that.”

Older people, too, could benefit. They often suffer root decay and other severe dental problems.

Fluoridation could help, Diaz said.