The Wichita City Council has decided to have a public vote on water fluoridation, an issue much of the country decided half a century ago.
The measure will appear on the Nov. 6 general election ballot.
After decades of pushing the issue of fluoridation to the back burner, the council was forced to take action by a petition drive.
Fluoride supporters gathered more than 11,000 signatures, forcing council members into a position where they either had to approve fluoridation outright or put it to a public vote.
Council member James Clendenin argued for putting fluoridation on the ballot, saying that citizens “do have the capacity to decide” what they want to have in the water.
He was joined by council member Lavonta Williams, who said seven people shouldn’t decide on an issue that affects every resident.
Council member Janet Miller argued that fluoridation has been proven safe and effective in preventing tooth decay and that the city should skip the ballot measure and “join the 21st century.”
Later, when it became obvious she was on the losing side, Miller made the motion to put fluoridation on the ballot and joined the unanimous council vote.
Although Wichita sells water to several surrounding cities, Gary Rebenstorf, the city attorney, said that only residents of Wichita would be allowed to vote on the issue.
The decision to put fluoridation on the ballot came after an extended public hearing in which proponents of fluoridation, mostly doctors and dentists, argued that its benefits to preventing tooth decay are unassailable.
Pediatrician Larry Hund said a study by the Sedgwick County Health Department showed 71 percent of children in the county had cavities by the third grade, compared with 58 percent statewide. Of 18,000 children screened, 2,300 had tooth decay, he said.
“As a scientist first and a physician second, I assure you there’s no scientific debate, just a social one,” Hund said. “Numerous studies over 65 years of experience have proven that community water fluoridation is safe and effective at the optimum levels.”
Opponents argued that fluoridation is at best forced medication and at worst causes diseases from heart disease to brain damage.
“I oppose fluoridation primarily because I believe in freedom,” said John Axtell, an engineer. “It’s freedom that united this country to become a nation, it’s freedom and the corollary to freedom which is individual responsibility, personal responsibility that made this nation powerful and great.”
Zella Newberry, a massage therapist, handed out tubes of toothpaste to the council members and invited them to read a warning label urging users to seek medical care if the toothpaste is eaten.
“If ingested, it says warning, it’s a poison,” Newberry said. “My case rests.”
Miller responded that swallowing toothpaste can give a person a stomachache, but that’s about it.
Pediatrician Amy Seery said that fluoride opponents and the Internet sites where they get their information make the mistake of glossing over the difference between a therapeutic trace of fluoride in drinking water and a massive overdose of the mineral.
She said any substance on the planet, including vital life needs such as water and oxygen, can be harmful in too large a quantity.
“Some people think five minutes research with Dr. Google makes them an expert,” she said.
Fluoride opponents pointed to Albuquerque and Santa Fe, N.M., along with a number of Canadian and smaller U.S. cities that have stopped fluoridating their water as evidence that fluoridation is abating.
The Centers for Disease Control, which cited fluoridated water as one of the top 10 public health improvements of the 20th century, reported that the number of Americans getting fluoridated water grew by 9 million from 2008 to 2010.
Last year, Arkansas adopted a fluoridation mandate for all of its cities of population 5,000 or more.
A city staff report estimated that it would cost $2.3 million to start fluoridation and $570,000 a year for maintenance and supplies.
Some of the cost would be offset with private funds.
Kim Moore, president of United Methodist Health Ministry Fund, said that organization is committed to giving the city $250,000 to help fund fluoridation and that other donors are willing to provide about $800,000.
Dentist Sara Meng said the benefit of fluoridation far outweighs the cost. She said by a “very conservative estimate,” fluoridation would save Wichitans at least $4.5 million a year in costs for preventable dental reconstruction.