An alarming 2011 county report detailed at length the deteriorating state of oral health in Sonoma County, particularly among low-income children. As the county Task Force on Oral Health underscored in its analysis, the county is seeing "a staggering burden of suffering and a growing oral health divide between rich and poor."

According to health care officials, the problem has only grown worse with the downturn in the economy.

Some steps have been taken to improve the situation, including the creation of more community-based dental clinics and more outreach programs focused on encouraging families to make dental health a priority. But the fact remains that no step would be more significant or more cost-effective than fluoridating our water.

It's a step that San Jose, the largest metropolitan area in the nation without fluoridation, finally took in December when the Santa Clara Valley Water District voted unanimously to move forward with a funding plan.

It's a step that Portland, Ore., is finally moving forward with as well after the City Council in September unanimously approved a fluoridation plan — after a raucous seven-hour hearing.

As we've noted before, it's a step that Sonoma County should take as well.

Last year, the Board of Supervisors, by a unanimous vote, approved moving ahead with preliminary studies on fluoridating the region's water supply. In the coming days or weeks, the staff is supposed to report back with those reports and seek further direction.

But even before hearing what those studies have to say, some residents and community groups are already sounding false alarms, claiming supervisors are planning on "poisoning" the county's children. Unable to point to verifiable studies validating real dangers, they roll out the usual exhaustive list of pejoratives and possible threats. Fluoride, they claim, is a chemical, toxin, industrial waste — choose your term — that will cause everything from cancer, osteoporosis and kidney failure to diminished IQs, obesity, infertility and brain damage.

Given all of that, it's hard to understand why San Jose and Portland will soon be joining San Francisco, New York and the 40 other largest cities in the nation that fluoridate. Today, 72.4 percent of the nation's population — nearly 200 million people — are served by public water systems that deliver fluoridated water.

The key issue here is not science. It's fear, a byproduct that spreads easily in an era of distrust, misinformation and political entrenchment.

The fact is fluoridating water has been shown to decrease cavities in children as much as 40percent. Studies have shown that every $1 invested in water fluoridation saves an estimated $38 in dental treatment costs.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers water fluoridation as one of the "10 great public health achievements of the 20th century."

When this issue comes back in the days ahead, we encourage the public to be wary of the hyperbole, and we encourage the Board of Supervisors to maintain its resolve. As the efforts in the South Bay and the Northwest have shown, progress won't come easily.