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Fluoride debate rages

After a five-hour meeting Tuesday, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved a $103,000 study to analyze the feasibility of fluoridating the county's water supply. The decision drew concern from some Petaluma residents leery of the costs and health effects, and support from local health officials.

The additional analysis comes after a year-long study authorized by the Board of Supervisors last year concluded that while fluoridation could be accomplished, it would cost approximately $8.5 million up-front in capital improvements to the county's central water system, plus an additional $973,000 per year to keep the program going.

Fluoride was originally introduced to the U.S. water supply in the 1970s. Today, about three quarters of the nation's public water systems are fluoridated, reaching approximately 196 million people nationally.

The new study authorized Tuesday is meant to help explain how the project costs would be funded and if they could be passed on to ratepayers. David Rabbitt, Petaluma's representative on the Board of Supervisors, has long supported the fluoridation of county water, but admitted that the costs were significant.

“The costs and logistics are still unclear to me,” he said. “It's also unclear whether anyone out there is willing to pay for this through rates, or if we'd need to find grants or some other funding mechanism. So this new study will explain how we could roll fluoridation out, and make sure that people are really behind this.”

Rabbitt's hesitation over public support stems from dozens of emails he said he has recently received on the subject of fluoridating the county water supply and the many critics who showed up at Tuesday's meeting. The subject has been a hot-button issue locally for many years. While those in the medical community support it, some members of the public do not, citing safety and health concerns.

Dissenters often point out that most children do not drink tap water anymore and as a result, may not even be exposed to the fluoride intended to help them. They add that the costs of fluoridating the water supply far outweigh any potential benefits.

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