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Council may bite back on fluoridation

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The Sonoma City Council is looking to sink its teeth into the fluoride debate, as city officials Wednesday will consider whether to publicly oppose the county’s proposed plans to add fluoride to the water system.

But, while water watchdogs salivate over the merits of state-mandated fluoridation, Sonoma officials seem to prefer more of a legal side-step to the controversy – arguing that Sonoma is simply exempt from the state’s fluoridation requirement.

The question of Sonoma County adding fluoride to the drinking water has made waves in recent months, as the County Department of Health Services has been moving forward with plans for a fluoridation program in the county water systems – with a recommendation expected before the Board of Supervisors sometime this spring.

Fluoridation proponents say that by injecting the additive in miniscule amounts – such as the less than one part per million added in Healdsburg, currently the only Sonoma County municipality to add fluoride – is safe and helps prevent tooth decay. Fluoride, they point out, already exists naturally in water at low levels.

Opponents, however, argue that the government has no right to force citizens to ingest an additive by injecting it into the water supply. Besides, opponents add, any dental benefits of fluoride aren’t achieved by ingesting the substance – only by directly applying it to the teeth which, they say, drinking water does not do.

A 2014 report by Colorado- based engineering firm MWH Americas Inc. estimated the cost to inject fluoride into Sonoma County water at about $587,000 per year.

The fluoride issue has been floating toward the surface since 2013, when county officials laid out the pros and cons of fluoridation to the Sonoma City Council. City officials at the time considered sending a formal letter of opposition to the Board of Supervisors, but ultimately no official action was taken.

Now, at the urging of anti-fluoridation crusader Dawna Gallagher-Stroeh, Mayor David Cook has requested that a letter of opposition come back before the council when it meets at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 18, at the Community Meeting Room, 177 First St. W.

When the question arises as to why some cities and counties fluoridate and some do not, the waters get murky.

Legislation passed in 1995 mandates that water districts must fluoridate their water supplies. According to AB 733 the state Department of Health Services directs districts “to adopt regulations that require the fluoridation of all public water systems that have at least 10,000 service connections.” But the mandate is unfunded, unenforced and essentially voluntary. Currently about 64 percent of state residents using public water systems are drinking fluoridated water; that number is up from 2006 when only 27 percent of residents used fluoridated water.

Sonoma officials, however, are expected to lobby the County to oppose the fluoride plan, arguing that the town of Sonoma should be exempt from the mandate due to its extensive use of well water.

In a staff-prepared “draft letter of opposition” to the Sonoma County Public Health Department, city officials state that while AB 733 mandates communities with 10,000 customer connections or more to fluoridate, “if a municipality has multiple sources of water supplies,” they would be exempt. “The town of Sonoma is thus exempt under both these requirements,” continues the letter.

Additionally, ongoing maintenance costs would fall to ratepayers, the letter continues, clenching the city’s teeth even further over the plan.

“While we applaud the efforts of the (county health department) to address ... oral health,” the letter continues, “perhaps supporting increased funding for the programs that are working – i.e. outreach nutritional education and more access to affordable dental care – would be far more effective to improving dental health while respecting the community’s right to choose.”