Published Friday, March 5, 1999, in the San Jose Mercury News
Voters OK ban on fluoride
By a slim margin, Santa Cruz voters banned fluoride from their water, becoming the first city to challenge a state law mandating it to fight tooth decay.
Measure N on Tuesday's ballot passed by a mere 74 votes, according to a final tally by county election officials. The final count was 4,441 in favor, or 50.4 percent, to 4,367 opposed, or 49.6 percent.
``Santa Cruz voted to protect their right to choose what they ingest in their water,'' said Theodora Kerry, a Measure N spokeswoman. ``They voted for their right to drink water that is safe.''
The election was so close that county officials refused to call it Tuesday. Measure N led then by 53 votes, but some 300 absentee and unverified ballots could not be counted until Thursday.
The measure represents the first broadside from voters in a California city against the state's 1995 law requiring most public water systems to fluoridate when funding is provided. The measure replaces last year's action by the Santa Cruz City Council, which prohibited fluoridation without voter approval.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the Santa Cruz measure will stand up against state law. State health officials contend California law takes precedence, and said they will ask the attorney general to seek a court ruling.
``Santa Cruz may indeed be a test case for the law, and we're well prepared for that,'' said David Nelson, a dentist and fluoride specialist with the Department of Health Services.
``It won't change our plans for Santa Cruz,'' Nelson said. ``In the greater scheme of things, it probably won't mean anything.''
The vote came as a shock to dentists and health officials who opposed Measure N and expected it to be defeated. Mountain View voters overwhelmingly endorsed fluoridation in a November referendum.
Bruce Donald, a Santa Cruz dentist who campaigned against Measure N, heard the news as he was filling three cavities on an 8-year-old boy who has already had two root canals.
``I'm disappointed, naturally,'' Donald said. ``These young teeth are grossly decayed. This is a perfect example of why we're trying to get this effective measure (fluoridation) out to everybody.''
Fluoridation boosts the amount of fluoride in water to about one part per million, a level considered optimal for developing and maintaining decay-resistant teeth. Santa Cruz's water naturally has about a fourth that amount.
Since it was introduced after World War II, fluoridation has been adopted by nearly two-thirds of American communities. Nine in 10 Bay Area residents drink fluoridated water.
But only 17 percent of communities statewide are fluoridated. That prompted state Sen. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, to push the 1995 fluoridation law when she was an assemblywoman.
Though virtually every health agency has endorsed fluoridation as safe and effective, it has been controversial from the start. In the 1950s, many conservatives opposed it as a form of socialized medicine, and voters in Santa Cruz, San Diego and other cities rejected it.
Today's fluoride critics come chiefly from the left. They include radical environmentalists who claim fluoridation is a chemical industry plot to cheaply dispose of industrial waste, and organic-food aficionados who hate artificial additives. Both are plentiful in liberal Santa Cruz.
``I moved here to be organic,'' said Dan Cooper, a Measure N supporter. ``I want to be able to choose what goes into my water.''
Fluoride foes cite reports they say link fluoridation to cancer, Alzheimer's disease, bone fractures and other maladies. Mainstream health officials say such claims are taken out of context or represent questionable science.
Though the state law was hotly debated in the Legislature, several cities, including Sacramento and Los Angeles, have since voted in favor of fluoridation.
The law affects 167 public water systems statewide, but provided no state funding. Instead, water districts were ranked for receipt of private funding based upon the efficiency of fluoridating them. Santa Cruz was ranked 12th because its single treatment plant makes it highly efficient.
The first major fluoridation funding was a $10 million grant in January from The California Endowment. It is expected to cost $200 million to fluoridate all affected communities.