A single mother of three young boys, Debbie Cook cares about nutrition. She buys organic food when she can afford it and has considered planting a garden of pesticide-free produce. Then she thinks about the water she’d have to use to help the garden grow.
“I would (have to) water it with fluoridated water,” said Cook, who buys bottled water for daily consumption. “ So effectively I’d have a fluoride garden.”
Cook lives in Fircrest, which adds fluoride to its water like many cities and public water systems in the Puget Sound. The suburban city has been fluoridated since 1957, making it one of the first cities in Washington to add the chemicals to the water supply to fight tooth decay.
Now a growing contingent of people in Fircrest are asking the city to end that practice.
For the last month, Cook and others have attended City Council meetings. Led by Fircrest residents John Mishko and David Stemp, both chiropractors, the group has inundated the council with statistics and scientific studies supporting their position that there’s no health benefit to fluoridating public water supplies.
Proponents of the practice, including doctors, dentists and representatives from the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, have testified to keep the status quo. They also provided the council with statistics and science supporting the position that fluoridated water is a public health benefit that helps improve oral health.
The city delivers water to just more than 6,000 customers. Part of the city is serviced by the city of Tacoma’s water division, which also adds fluoride to its water.
The council has remained silent to this point, but after 45 minutes of public comment Tuesday, Councilman Jason Medley asked the council take up the debate at its Aug. 12 meeting.
Because city code says fluoride should be added to the water supply, the only way to change that practice is to change the law. The council is expected to take a vote at the August meeting.
“I think we’re not doing our due diligence if we just let this pass,” Medley said Tuesday after noting the high level of public interest and making a motion for a council vote.
Despite the efforts of the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department to persuade communities to fluoridate, some local water systems have opted to keep it out.
The city of Gig Harbor and the Lakewood Water District don’t add fluoride to water. Last summer, Parkland Light & Water removed it for cost-saving reasons. The cities of Puyallup and Bonney Lake have fluoride in their water, but it’s combined with non-fluoridated water and the levels don’t fall in the federally recommended range, according to the state Department of Health.
The local health department in 2002 ordered the county's largest water providers to fluoridate or face fines. A lawsuit was filed by a half-dozen water utilities, arguing that fluoridation amounted to forced medication and that the cost was an illegal tax.
The state Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that the health department had overstepped its authority.
In a 2012 statement on fluoride in community water supplies, former State Health Officer Maxine Hayes said the state “supports water fluoridation as a sound population-based public health measure.”
The state’s position has not changed, said Carolyn Cox, a Health Department spokeswoman. She said the state supports the range recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“It’s kind of nice the way things are set up in Washington: The state doesn’t force anybody; it’s a local decision,” Cox said. “Our role here is to regulate the communities that decide to fluoridate.”
Fircrest budgeted $4,200 to buy fluoride in 2014; it plans to make $50,000 worth of improvements to its fluoride monitoring equipment in 2015.
Mishko and Stemp hope their group’s repeated visits to Fircrest council meetings will sway elected leaders to make a change in the city of 6,500 people.
“The reason we are against fluoride is we don’t want to be forced to have it if we don’t want it,” Stemp said. “There’s a huge difference between ingesting fluoride and putting it on the teeth topically.”
The ways people get fluoride — including from toothpaste, mouthwash and the dentist — have changed, Mishko said.
“We’re just asking the city to change with the times,” he said.