Spokane City Council Considering Water Fluoridation

Aug 26, 2020

The Spokane City Council is considering whether to add fluoride to the city's drinking water.
Credit Doug Nadvornick/SPR

Water fluoridation may be in the city of Spokane’s future.

The city council is considering a request by dentists to fluoridate the city’s water supply. The proposal may be added to the council’s agenda as early as next Monday.

Water fluoridation has been proposed – and rejected – before by Spokane residents. Supporters such as Dr. Elisabeth Warder believe it’s time to consider it again.

Warder came to Spokane from Minnesota. She’s now the dental director for CHAS Health.

“As I began working for CHAS, I was really astonished by the amount of decay I saw. I had never seen anything like it before. And then I learned, not right away, but probably a couple of months in, that we don’t provide that right balance of fluoride in the water and, in my mind, that’s one of the major reasons that we see the amount of disease that we have," she said.

Many doctors and dentists say oral health problems often lead to issues in other parts of the body. Warder says those are sometimes most acute in people who don’t have regular access to health care, including people of color and children.

“In the United States, the number one chronic disease of children is dental decay, more than asthma, more than obesity, more than childhood, juvenile diabetes. It’s tooth decay," she said.

She says there’s a simple, inexpensive remedy.

“Community water fluoridation is the most universal, also the most effective, cost effective way to deliver that proper balance of fluoride to everybody in the community regardless of age, race, gender, income, whatever," she said.

County Health Officer Bob Lutz says fluoridation is an idea that has percolated for years among members of the county health board. He says it hasn’t gone forward because the issue has become politicized. But he believes the need is there. Spokane is the largest city in Washington that doesn’t add fluoride to its water.  

“Fluoride is a natural element and so we know it exists in our water supply, but it’s not at a level which has therapeutic benefits," Lutz said.

The federal government has set an optimum fluoride level for local sources of drinking water.

Warder, other dentists and public health advocates approached the city council earlier this year, asking it to consider adding fluoride to that level in Spokane’s water.

Arcora, the foundation created by Delta Dental, has pledged up to three million dollars to pay the cost of buying and installing the necessary equipment. Fundraising is underway to secure additional money.

Supporters, such as Chuck Teegarden, the executive director of Communities in Schools of Spokane County, are making the political calculation that the timing and balance of the city council are right.

“It’s a time when everybody is more thoughtful about public health than they would normally be and, frankly, there seems to be real interest on the part of city council to get this done," Teegarden said.

Council President Breean Beggs hopes to have the proposal on the agenda of next Monday’s council meeting.

“When I look at the costs and the benefits out there, it really weighs heavily in favor of the benefits and especially for lower-income children that have little choice in the world," Beggs said.

Other members of the council have also expressed their support. For example, Betsy Wilkerson is confident that fluoridated water will eventually lead to better health for people of color in the community.

At least two council members are withholding judgment.

Councilwoman Lori Kinnear says she’ll wait until she hears more information before committing one way or the other.

Councilman Mike Cathcart says he’s also still doing his homework.

“I would vote no if it’s today because by no means has there been enough research and discussion on this topic at all. This is just being rushed through way too quickly. But if we could really get a handle on the science and discuss this with experts, I would say I’m open," he said.

The science. Proponents say they have decades worth of studies that prove the benefits of fluoride on teeth. But opponents, such as Chris Neurath from the Fluoride Action Network, say the science is changing.

“Just in the last year or two, there have been a huge number of studies done, not just in China, but in Canada now, in Mexico, in other places, and at the same levels of fluoride exposure that you get from drinking fluoridated water," Neurath said.

He studies and writes about ongoing fluoride research.

“By far, the biggest issue, in my opinion, with fluoridation, which has been ignored by a lot of the advocates, is neurotoxicity, loss of IQ and other effects," Neurath said.

He says that research has become prominent enough and voluminous enough that supporters of fluoridation can’t ignore it.

“They could get away with it 10 years ago. They could say the science isn’t there. We don’t know enough. But right now, today, it has to be the most important issue in my mind," he said.

Neurath also questions the benefits of fluoride. He says the Centers for Disease Control estimates fluoridation leads only to a 25% reduction in tooth decay among children. And he points to the cities, such as Port Angeles, Washington, that are now moving away from fluoridation.

Opposition to fluoridation isn’t coming just from outside groups.

“I’m opposed to it because of the IQ points that are lost, increased ADHD in the population, the effects on people with diabetes and kidneys, liver. Even sleep disturbances in more recent studies have been known," said Jeff Irish, founder of Safe Water Spokane.

Mayor Nadine Woodward says she’s concerned about the cost of installing and operating a fluoridation system. There’s some disagreement about the cost of installation. Some say $4 million. Woodward says the city’s estimates are closer to $6 million. She also points to the operating costs, perhaps as much as $600,000 a year. The mayor says that would take away funding from other city engineering projects.

Council President Beggs says the council would likely consider a small increase in utility fees, two or three dollars a year, to cover that. If so, he’ll run into resistance from Councilman Mike Cathcart.

“I have absolutely no interest in raising our utility rates above population growth plus inflation and so, what’s the pay for? How do we pay for this change in our service model?” he said.

There’s also the question of whether the council should decide this issue or the people, via a ballot measure. The people have said no to fluoridation three times in the past.

The mayor says she’s concerned about the compressed time frame. She says fluoridation is not a Covid-related emergency. Classifying it as one, she says, would take away her right to veto the proposal. She thinks the people should be allowed to make the decision.

Advocates, though, are urging the council to move ahead with it and Council President Breean Beggs says he’s inclined to agree.

“It doesn’t lend itself well to political campaigns and all the distortions. It really is better to rely on the political health scientists, as long as that’s firmly established,” he said.

Beggs says he believes the majority of Spokane citizens support fluoridation. And delaying a council vote he says, means Spokane would be putting off the health benefits of fluoridation.

The council is sponsoring a virtual public forum on the fluoride proposal, Thursday evening at 6. You can watch it live on Spokane City Cable 5 and the city’s website.