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Fluoride a Wash for City Council

By Teresa Rochester

In an ending worthy of a Hollywood cliffhanger that promises a sequel, the City Council voted Tuesday night not to fluoridate the City's drinking water but will resurrect the controversial issue at a later date.

Facing a 3 - 3 split that would have instantly killed the issue, pro-fluoridation council members mounted an emotional last-minute lobby to change Mayor Ken Genser's decisive vote against fluoridation.

When they failed -- after invoking images of poor children and seniors who would benefit from boosting the fluoride in the City's drinking water -- Councilman Robert Holbrook changed his vote in order to bring the issue back to the council.

Holbrook's switch (only a council member who casts a vote on the winning side can request that the item be brought back) guarantees that the divisive issue will be heard by a full council that will include Mayor Pro Tem Pam O'Connor, who was absent Tuesday night, and newly elected Councilman Herb Katz.

For Genser, who said he did not know which way he would vote until the hearing got underway, it all came down to a matter of choice.

"I have been very troubled by the issue of choice and putting a chemical into our bodies," said Genser. "I don't feel there are feelings of safety. The toxic waste stuff just doesn't resonate with me. I think its relatively safe but there is a growing body of people concerned with having a choice."

Council members said they had been flooded by a deluge of e-mails, phone calls and letters from people on both sides of the fence. Before the meeting, about 20 opponents of fluoridation marched in a circle armed with placards chanting "Children yes. Industrial waste no."

Pro-fluoridation council members said they supported the issue because it benefited a majority of the community, including mainly children, the poor and the elderly, who would be the main beneficiaries of fluoridation.

"I have a feeling that much of the people who are opposed to fluoride don't drink tap water," said Councilman Paul Rosenstein, who championed the issue at his last meeting as a council member. "If choice is a issue, whose choice are we going to respect?

"It's the people who don't have the option and are drinking the tap water who are suffering tremendously. I think that when we have a decision about choice, we have to come down on the side of young people and seniors."

Councilman Richard Bloom agreed.

"The bottom line for me is this is an issue that effects three target groups -- low-income families, children and the elderly -- much more than any other groups. It is our responsibility to legislate for the benefit of the community," Bloom said, as anti-fluoride audience members heckled him.

"The evidence is overwhelming that fluoridation is safe and is not just a little beneficial but overwhelmingly beneficial for those three target groups."

Council members who did not support fluoridation said they were concerned about the long-term effects of the chemical that has been added to drinking water in cities across the country for the last 50 years. They also said they were not 100 percent sure about the accuracy of the information provided by both sides.

"I consider what I put into my body an intimate decision I make," said Councilman Kevin McKeown.

"I'm not in a position where I'm not 100 percent sure of the science and I'm not 100 percent sure who to believe," said Councilman Michael Feinstein. "I've come to ultimately looking into my gut because I don't have an intellectual basis.

"Where my gut is, is in a similar place where Councilman McKeown is," Feinstein said. "The combination of the strongly felt differences and my personal decision doesn't make me feel comfortable about making this kind of decision."

The divisive issue brought out more than 70 speakers last week, who painted widely differing portraits of fluoridation and its effects. Both sides presented conflicting evidence to bolster their claims, leaving no room for consensus.

While two City polls found a majority of residents favored fluoridation, a majority of the speakers -- many of them from out of town -- opposed the idea.

Opponents said the choice to add fluoride to their diets should be left to the individual and not the government. Opponents, some of whom likened fluoride to toxic waste, said that an excess amount of the chemical adversely affects health, causing fluorosis and a weakened immune system.

Supporters, who included school district officials, a number of dentists, county health officials and the Chamber of Commerce argued that studies show that fluoridation decreases dental caries 60 to 70 percent and poses no health risks.

Proponents point to the approval of water fluoridation by every Surgeon General since 1945 and by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention and the American Dental Association.

Since Grand Rapids, MI became one of the first cities to fluoridate in 1945, the issue has divided communities across the country and the state. In 1996, then-Gov. Pete Wilson signed a bill mandating that water suppliers fluoridate. Since that time Los Angeles, San Diego, Sacramento and Beverly Hills have begun fluoridating.

Several Cities in California, including Santa Cruz, Escondido and Santa Barbara, have rejected fluoridation.

According to the CDCP more than 10,000 public water systems and some 70 percent of U.S. cities with populations of more than 100,000 have fluoridated water.

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