Q&A/Flagstaff tackles sensitive water issue again
For nearly 50 years, the residents of Flagstaff, Ariz., have debated the value of fluoridated drinking water in their community. Is that about to change? In April, the city council voted 4-3 to add fluoride to the water, and residents are preparing to vote on that decision. Karen Cooper, vice mayor and six-year resident of Flagstaff, is in favor of the additive.
Q: Has Flagstaff ever had fluoride in its water?
A: Fluoride was in the water for two years between 1974 and 1976. Feelings ran quite high. (According to the Arizona Daily Sun, the city council mandated fluoridation, and residents overturned the council’s decision two years later, alleging a link between fluoridation and human cancer.) At this point, we’ve had another 25 years of experience that shows that there are few measurable downsides to having fluoride and that it does impact dental decay.
Q: What is happening in Flagstaff that raised the issue of adding fluoride to the water again?
A: Flagstaff relies heavily on the tourist industry, which produces a lot of low paying jobs with no benefits. Therefore we have a large segment of the population that doesn’t have dental insurance. We’re getting reports from our dentists and from our public health people that they’re seeing a lot of serious decay in school children to the point that they have abscesses. They can’t eat properly because their teeth hurt. That is despite all kinds of clinics in the schools. They have fluoride treatment programs in the schools; they have educational programs; they have public health nurses who teach brushing and flossing, but it just isn’t meeting the problem adequately.
Q: Do all of the city council members think that fluoride should be added to the water?
A: Yes. We’re pretty unanimous on that. The vote to add fluoride to the water was largely a difference of opinion as to how [the issue] should be put to the people. The options [were to pass an ordinance to add fluoride to the water or to have] just a straight ballot question brought by petition to add fluoride.
It’s certainly doable. Once the equipment (which costs $200,000 to $500,000) is in place, it costs 50 cents a year per person to fluoridate. It certainly won’t solve all the problems, but the estimate is that, for every dollar you spend fluoridating water, you save somewhere between $50 and $80 of treatment costs.
Q: Why have residents petitioned to have a referendum on the issue?
A: The big issue is the right to choose. A number of people at our hearings got up and said, “Fluoride is fine, but I shouldn’t have to have it in my water if I don’t want it.” That’s sort of a popular stance in the American West that I’ve observed. It’s [the position that], “I’ll make up my own mind.”
Q: The city is holding a special election in November in response to residents who don’t want fluoride added to the water.?
A: Right. I certainly think the best way to settle it is at the polls. Rather than have it on the ballot during an election where there will be other issues, including a renewal of our sales tax, we decided it would be better to do it as a stand-alone issue election with a mail ballot. I’m very excited that we’re doing this as an all-mail election, because the experience in other communities with that type of election is they get a much higher response.
Q: Do you think that the vote will effectively end the discussion?
A: I think so. I think it would be too bad if it doesn’t pass because it will probably be a number of years before it would be brought up again. I’ve had the experience where my own children grew up in cities that had fluoridated water, and my observation is that they had far fewer cavities than I did. I really think that fluoride does make a difference, and I’d like to see that for Flagstaff’s children.