FLORENCE – For more than 50 years, the residents of this coastal town have gulped down millions of gallons of water, pumped from the surface of local lakes or from beneath sand dunes – with at least one special ingredient: fluoride.

Hailed by dentists as a proven cavity foe, city officials decided in 1952 that people would be better off if they had a little extra fluoride in their diets.

But a graduate of Lane Community College wants to change all that, stunned by the research he did on the term paper that helped him earn his associate of arts degree this spring.

Allied with a group of five other local advocates who believe that fluoride is actually a public health blight, Michael Hendrick hopes to get an initiative on the ballot as soon as possible to restrict what the city puts in its drinking water.

If Hendrick succeeds, Florence residents will join the minority of U.S. residents who don’t drink fluoridated water. But they’ll join a vast majority in Oregon, where 78 percent of the population doesn’t drink fluoride, including residents of Eugene and Springfield.

“We drink spring water,” said Hendrick of his own family. He even tries not to bathe in fluoridated water. “I soak in a bath tub. But that’s a little frightening.”

The science of confusion

The fluoride debate is nothing short of a conundrum, with proponents and opponents offering up piles of studies, statistics and anecdotes to make their case. Once dismissed as fodder for conspiracy theorists who called fluoride treatments Communist mind control, the discussion has in recent years begun to shift into the mainstream – which adds to the confusion.

The Florence City Council, for example, spent more than two hours last week haggling over the very wording of Hendrick’s proposed ordinance, which is copied nearly verbatim from a version supplied by state and national anti-fluoride groups.

The purpose of the special meeting was simply to decide whether the wording that would appear on the ballot accurately reflects what Hendrick wants. If so, he must collect 343 valid signatures for an initiative to go before voters in an upcoming election.

But the discussion was anything but simple.

“I am not a chemist,” Council President Phil Brubaker declared at the meeting’s outset. But before long, a whole passel of non-chemists were trying to get a word in.

Part of the confusion stems from one of the first things Hendrick told the City Council: that his proposal “has already gotten an anti-fluoride reputation, but it actually covers many medicinal substances that we’re mass-medicating ourselves with.”

That’s why Hendrick’s proposal doesn’t specifically ban fluoride from the water supply.

The ordinance, developed by the national Citizens for Safe Drinking Water and recently endorsed by the Oregon chapter of the Sierra Club, has two key provisions: It allows the city to add substances to water to prevent or treat adverse health effects only if they’ve been specifically approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The substances also would be forbidden from exceeding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “maximum contaminant level goals.”

“We believe in safe water quality,” Hendrick said. “There are so many difficulties when you mass-medicate people through our water system.”

Irregular regulations?

But at least two Florence dentists say the wording of Hendrick’s ordinance is confusing, misleading and inaccurate. They challenged the ballot title, which prompted the council’s meeting.

“I have no problem with the election process,” dentist Brian Holmes said. “I think people have the right to make a choice.”

Still, he said, Hendrick’s ordinance would put the city in an untenable position.

The FDA doesn’t regulate fluoride in drinking water. Only the EPA regulates what can be added to drinking water. Thus, Holmes and fellow dentist Thomas Hunt argue that the FDA has no legal authority to step in.

“You are asking for something that is illegal under U.S. law,” Hunt said. “It can never be done.”

Also, he argued, using EPA’s “goals” – as opposed to EPA “limits” – would be far more restrictive than the standard currently used, Holmes added, and far too difficult to attain.

Furthermore, someone might try to apply the ordinance to other substances the city already adds to the water – such as potassium permanganate and caustic soda, used to remove iron.

“I think you’re getting into a real hornet’s nest here if you leave the ballot title the way it is,” Hunt said.

Hendrick disagreed on both counts. While it’s true that the FDA doesn’t regulate drinking water fluoride, he said that the agency has every right to do so because fluoride is a drug. The FDA does regulate pharmaceutical fluoride, for example.

And as for other substances, the proposed ordinance is deliberately nonspecific, he said. If it only banned fluoride, the city could decide to add other drugs in the water – Cipro, for example, if there was another anthrax scare.

Before long, the two sides were debating the merits of fluoride, not the wording of the ordinance. The council decided the adjourn and plans to work with Hendrick for a clearer proposal.

Fluoride unpopular with voters

If the council approves the ballot wording and Hendrick can collect enough signatures, the issue will be put to voters sometime next spring.

It’s hard to know what Florence residents will decide. For decades, people here assumed that fluoride was added to the water only after a citywide election. After researching the city’s archives, however, it appears the council made the decision on its own, Mayor Alan Burns said.

When such elections do take place, however, they most often swing against fluoridation, said Michael Connett, research director for the Fluoride Action Network, an anti-fluoridation nonprofit based in Burlington, Vt. He said 60 percent to 65 percent of such elections result in fluoride being removed or never added to the water supply.

“The best thing to do is let the public vote,” Burns said.