By Lynn Kwitt, Fluoride Free Sonoma County

In an unprecedented 5-0 City Council vote on November 12, Cotati joined a growing number of college towns including Davis, California, and Portland, Oregon, voting to keep fluoridation chemicals out of their water supply.

Cotati is one of nine major cities and water districts supplied by the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA). These cities and water districts deliver drinking water to more than 600,000 residents in portions of Sonoma and Marin counties. Only Santa Rosa, Petaluma and the North Marin Water District have more than 10,000 connections and are subject to the California State AB733 mandate to fluoridate if funding is available. Because Cotati and the other five jurisdictions in the SCWA service area have fewer than 10,000 connections, they are not subject to the State mandate and are free to choose whether or not to fluoridate.

The relationship between SCWA and the nine cities and water agencies it supplies (commonly referred to as the ‘Contractors’) is governed by a complex agreement.   According to the Technical Advisory Committee of the Contractors, this agreement would need to be amended by unanimous vote of all nine Contractors before fluoridation could be undertaken. The current agreement took several years to negotiate.

The November 12 Cotati City Council hearing was prompted by a Sonoma County Grand Jury report, which recommended that both sides of the issue be heard. After hearing presentations and public comment, the Cotati Councilmembers  expressed concerns about the cost impacts, overall potential health risks, inefficiencies of the plan, and the lack of choice.

The Councilmembers also expressed concern during their deliberations about how fluoridation would be paid for after First 5 tobacco tax funding of the startup capital cost and maintenance during the first two or three years ended.

When asked afterwards to comment on the unanimous vote, Cotati Mayor Mark Landman said, “We concluded that more cost effective and equitable alternatives exist for dental health in Sonoma County, and that would be a better course of action. More importantly, ‘choice’ was the word we heard repeatedly from our citizens. They asked us to respect their choice to decide what medications their families receive, and we agreed as an elected body that this decision should remain theirs.”

The presentation supporting fluoridation was made by Sonoma County Department of Health Services representative, Kim Caldewey.  She described an increase in dental-related visits to emergency rooms and charity dental clinics in Sonoma County between 2008 and 2012, and outlined unmet needs for dental care among the county’s economically disadvantaged children. She argued that fluoridating drinking water supplied to the SCWA service area would be the most cost-effective approach to addressing the issue of dental decay.

The argument against water fluoridation was presented by Cotati endocrine specialist Richard Shames M.D. and Stephen Fuller-Rowell, co-founder of the Sonoma County Water Coalition. Fuller-Rowell said he spoke as a grandfather who drinks tap water. Shames and Fuller-Rowell explained the ethical issues of mass medication, the impossibility of controlling dosage because people drink different amounts of water, the proven ineffectiveness of fluoridation as a solution to tooth decay, the increasing sophistication of voters who are more likely to to do their own research, and the inefficiencies of adding fluoride to the water supply when more than 99% goes ‘down the drain’.

To highlight the lack of practical effectiveness of the proposal, Fuller-Rowell pointed to a 2013 SCWA survey which revealed that only 14% of the Latino population in Sonoma County drinks regular tap water. Yet Latino children are the Health Department’s key target constituency, as they have the highest rate of tooth decay.

Fuller-Rowell further explained that fluoridation would conflict with existing public policy in several key areas.  SCWA and its Contractors have run Take It from the Tap campaigns in recent years to build trust in the county’s tap water. He suggested that consumption of bottled water would rise again if fluoridation went ahead. Additionally, Sonoma County has invested heavily in salmon restoration programs which could be jeopardized by fluoride residues in irrigation run-off and in wastewater.

In conclusion, Fuller-Rowell observed: “It’s time to move beyond the magical thinking from the 1950’s that believed fluoride would give us all perfect teeth without affecting anything else in our bodies or in the world around us.”

A member of the Santa Rosa Plain Groundwater Basin Advisory Panel, former Rohnert Park City Council member Dawna Gallagher-Stroeh, raised the issue of the cost impact of fluoridation on proposals to use aquifer storage and recovery to balance seasonal supply and demand. Fluoride would need to be removed from drinking water before being injected into groundwater.  This cost was not addressed in the feasibility study by the county.

The PEW Center on the States, in a February 2012 presentation, reported recent changes in attitudes toward fluoridation, especially those of young people and intellectuals.  Polls showed a drop in those “strongly supporting fluoridation” from 62% in 2005 to 26% in 2011.  Reading between the lines the message was that the days of not engaging in public debate on fluoridation are gone; and in fact, avoiding the debate is creating suspicion and distrust of government.

Clint Griess of Clean Water California, an organization working on fluoridation issues at the state and local levels, noted this trend: “The worst fear of water fluoridation proponents in California is the emergence of a politically sophisticated and dedicated movement to counter their well-funded, behind-the-scenes lobbying of local and state officials. People of every political persuasion are coming together and rapidly learning what it will take — personally and collectively — to defeat what we see as an affront to public health, the right to consent, and plain common sense.”

Six days after the Cotati vote, Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Lynn Silver Chalfin, the leading fluoridation advocate in Sonoma County, announced her resignation. In her message, Dr Silver Chalfin described Sonoma County as “ … an extraordinary place, beyond its obvious physical beauty, the residents are engaged in trying to create a better community in a way I have not seen anywhere else I’ve lived. That is a very precious asset which you are nurturing successfully. Your dedication, skills and service provide critical support to making progress.” In a subsequent statement to the Sonoma County Press Democrat newspaper, Dr Silver Chalfin denied that her departure had anything to do with her strong advocacy for fluoridation.