Fluoride Foes Beaten Back at Ballot Box

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Fluoride Foes Beaten Back at Ballot Box

Most voters want mineral in their water, referendums show

By Randy Dotinga HealthScout Reporter THURSDAY, Nov. 9 (HealthScout) -- The nation's fluoride foes were nearly blown out of the water on Election Day, as two large cities voted to start fluoridating their drinking supplies and voters in Las Vegas agreed to continue doing so.

Activists who think fluoride poisons people did have success at ballot boxes in Spokane, Wash., and some small towns across the United States. But the nation's march toward fluoridation continued virtually unabated as the water supplies of 3.8 million people were at stake this week.

"There's been a steady trend for 50 years, and it's going to increase," says Dr. Stephen Barrett, a Pennsylvania doctor who supports fluoride. "Eventually, every city will be fluoridated. I don't know if it will be in my lifetime, but it will happen."

While fluoride is widely accepted as an essential ingredient in toothpaste, its presence in drinking water has long been controversial.

An overwhelming majority of health organizations and dental experts support fluoridation, saying it's an effective and cheap way to prevent tooth decay. They say fluoride works by strengthening teeth against decay and rebuilding eroded teeth.

But critics claim fluoride causes cancer, hip fractures, mottled teeth, reproductive system damage and brain problems. Some have suggested its prevalence may explain high rates of attention deficit disorder in children.

Fluoride can indeed cause problems when taken in high doses, but its advocates say the amount added to drinking water -- typically about 1 part per million -- is too small to do damage.

The battle between the two sides is often heated. Fluoride proponents consider their foes to be so poorly informed they refuse to debate them in public.

While anti-fluoride activity was once considered a phenomenon of the right wing, some environmentalists on the left have joined the movement. Presidential candidate Ralph Nader became a prominent voice against fluoridation this year.

In 1992, according to the most recent federal statistics, 56 percent of the nation's water supply was fluoridated. Big cities like Los Angeles have since adopted fluoridation, almost certainly increasing that percentage significantly.

On Election Day, he biggest victory for fluoride advocates came in San Antonio, where slightly more than half of the voters approved fluoridation. Two previous attempts had failed.

San Antonio will become the 46th of the nation's 50 largest cities to fluoridate its water. The exceptions are San Jose, Calif.; San Diego, Honolulu and Portland, Ore.

And Honolulu is considering fluoridation, while San Diego's city council has voted to fluoridate but faces a court challenge.

Fluoridation measures also passed on Tuesday in Salt Lake and Davis counties in Utah. Salt Lake County encompasses Salt Lake City, while Davis is directly to the north.

In the Las Vegas, Clark County voters turned back a measure that would have shut down fluoridation.

According to fluoride opponents, other cities and towns supporting fluoridation include North Attleboro, Mass.; Leavenworth, Kan.; Sunnyvale, Calif.; Gilbert, Ariz.; and Abilene, Texas.

In Spokane, home to 184,000 people, fluoridation fell by a margin of 51 percent to 49 percent. A number of towns with populations under 30,000 voted against fluoridation in Vermont, Washington, New York and Utah.

Barrett says passage of the measures in large cities is a good sign, although he doesn't think voters should get involved in the first place.

"This represents a failure of democracy," he says. "Our leaders are supposed to make decisions about what makes sense and what doesn't. The average legislator ought to be above average in intelligence and be willing to do what's appropriate."

On the other side, a leading critic of fluoride says his cause is far from lost. For one thing, small communities are still more likely to oppose fluoridation, says Paul Connett, a chemistry professor at New York's St. Lawrence University.

The Internet should also help fluoride foes reach voters, he says, and combat perceptions that they are "a little bit nutty."

"What we're looking at here is the last hurrah of fluoridation," he says. "They've peaked. This is as far as they are going to get."

-- cin (cin@cin.cin), November 10, 2000

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