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Fluoride in water under debate

Fluoride in water under debate



Sun, Oct. 27, 2002
By David L. Beck
Mercury News

William Jarvis liked to put on water fluoridation debates for his
students at Loma Linda University’s School of Dentistry. He would
ask them to vote twicebefore the debate and after.
“We always had people favorable toward fluoridation before the
debate and less favorable after,” said Jarvis, who retired two years
ago as professor of public health and preventive medicine.
Was it the science that swayed them? No, said Jarvis.
“They didn’t have to convince you that fluoridation was a mistake,”
he said. “They only had to put doubt in your mind . . . create the
illusion of a controversy.”
But the controversy over Watsonville’s Measure S is no illusion. The
ballot measuredubbed the anti-fluoridation measure, although,
interestingly, the word fluoridation never appears in the text of the
measurehas divided people here as it has elsewhere in
Backers of fluoridating public water supplies call the sowing of
seeds of doubt “scare tactics,” while opponents argue that the
illusion lies in the belief that fluoridation helps prevent cavities.
It’s a debate that has raged ever since public health authorities
began ordering fluoridation in the early 1950s as an inexpensive
and effective treatment.
The government’s position hasn’t changed. A lengthy 2001 report
from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counsels
frequent small doses of fluorides, from drinking water and from
using fluoride toothpaste, as the most effective treatment.
(Opponents cite one sentence in that study as proof that
fluoridated water alone won’t do it.)
Measure S restricts the substances that can be added to
Watsonville water supplies to those that are approved by the U.S.
Food and Drug Administration and are without contaminants.
Tricky wording, Jarvis points out, because the FDA doesn’t approve
anything in local water supplies because it has no constitutional
authority over local water supplies.
Opponents claim the effectiveness of fluoridation has never been
proved, and talk about the contaminants the fluoride additive may
contain. They object in a political way to treating people through
their water supplies, and they distinguish between people-treating
and water purification treatments such as chlorine.
Backers disagree with the notion it’s either ineffective or unsafe.
“It’s the most scientifically studied of all the public health
measures,” Jarvis said. Just about every major public health
organization, from the American Dental Association and the
American Medical Association to the CDC and the World Health
Organization, supports it. It’s been so effective that dentists who
once mostly filled cavities have had to find other things to do.
The percentage of Americans on public water systems who receive
fluoridated water is nearing the two-thirds mark, and even in
California, where only 29 percent of people are on fluoridated public
water systems, that number has nearly doubled over the last
But there is considerable doubt whether Measure S will have any
legal effect even if it passes. The California Safe Drinking Water Act
of 1995 requires water systems to fluoridate if they have more than
10,000 hookups and if they can afford to do so. Watsonville is big
enough, and it has a $946,000 grant from the California Dental
Foundation to do the work.
When the grant came through, so did an order from the state
Department of Health Services. The city council asked for bids on a
system last month.
San Jose, which appears on a national list as the largest city in the
country without fluoridation, is actually partly fluoridated because
East Side Evergreen voted yes in a 1963 referendum.
San Jose Water Co., which serves about 80 percent of the rest of
the city, plans to comply with the state law and is on the list for
funding, according to company Vice President Dick Ballocco.
The city of Santa Cruz has so far remained exempt from the
California law because, following a 1999 referendum, it has not
sought funds for fluoridation.
Does the state law trump local voters’ wishes? Jarvis says it does.
And while no city has yet gone to court over the 1995 law,
Watsonville City Attorney Alan Smith has legal opinions from the
state attorney general’s office and the office of the legislative
counsel that say Watsonville must fluoridate.
So when the issue is put to the voters, the fur flies. Backers of
fluoridation speak passionately of poor children who cannot sleep or
study because of toothache. They deride anti-fluoridation
arguments as pseudo-science.
Opponents speak with equal passion about the dangers of tooth
damage from fluorides. They demand to see studies on how fluoride
works and how much water people drink.
Both sides point to people they see as outsiders trying to alter local
water supplies. Jeff Green of San Diego, the head of Citizens for
Safe Drinking Water and probably the nation’s leading
anti-fluoridationist, said his organization helps local people fight
fluoridation, rather than providing a “central response,” although
Green himself is always on the move, testifying from Washington,
D.C., to Washington state to Watsonville.
Nick Bulaich, a Watsonville building contractor, said he went to a
Watsonville City Council meeting on the issue last year with an
open mind, but found himself persuaded by Green and Maureen
Jones, a San Jose woman who is also active full-time against
“I like to read both sides of an issue,” Bulaich said. “Any claim
they make, they better give me a document to back it up.”
They did, to Bulaich’s satisfaction. He helped put Measure S on the
ballot. He’s derisive of the other side’s arguments.
“They’ll give you some bogus studiesthis city fluoridated and
over the course of 40 years” the rate of dental problems went
down. “That’s not what did it,” he said. “What did it was people
learned to brush their teeth and went to dentists. . . .
“If you go to the dentist and do daily dental hygiene, you wouldn’t
need fluoridated watereven if it works, which it doesn’t.”
Equally passionate on the other side is Theresa Ontiveros, manager
of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Watsonville. “One of the things
that I see all the time is children coming in with a lot of dental
cavities,” she said, noting that they miss school because of dental
problems and seldom have insurance.
“I know that putting fluoride in the water isn’t going to solve all
the problems,” she said, “but I know it’s definitely going to help
She decries the opposition’s “scare tactics” and “misinformation,”
which she said is easily believed by the poor and uneducated.
“It’s a disservice to the people that really need it. It’s always the
poor, right? It’s always the poor because they’re uninsured. They
don’t have access to the services.”
Debbie Trent, executive director of the public health dental clinic
Dientes, agrees: “It’s terrible that the city has the money, has the
order from the state, and people are out there trying to convince
uneducated people” that fluoride is bad for them.
Nonetheless, the controversyor rather, the illusion of controversy
-- persists.
“There really is sort of an anti-government, anti-science culture
that this appeals to,” Jarvis said. “The studies that have been
done in this area show these people tend to be anti-medicine,
pro-chiropractic, pro-health foods . . . just sort of that health-food
Contact David L. Beck at dbeck (at) or at (831) 423-0960


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