The City Council has decided to have a public vote on water fluoridation, an issue most 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 vote.
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Council member James Clendenin argued for putting fluoridation to a vote, 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 vote and "join the 21st Century."
The decision 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 stomach ache, but that's about all.
Dr. Amy Seery, a pediatrician, said 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.