The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday pressed forward with a controversial plan to put fluoride into most of the county's drinking water during an emotional hearing in which dozens of speakers debated whether the chemical compound is a panacea or a poison.
Dentists and other health care professionals, along with a larger, more vocal contingent of fluoride skeptics, packed board chambers for the marathon five-hour public hearing.
Despite reservations expressed by some supervisors, the board unanimously authorized additional financial analysis and engineering studies of adding fluoride to most of the county's drinking water. The final decision is not expected until March 2014.
"We can't ignore the data and the statistics in this county when it comes to the oral health epidemic," Supervisor Efren Carrillo said.
Dozens of speakers, however, expressed anger and dismay over the proposal, citing health concerns, distrust of mainstream science and doubts about how the county would be able to fund the project.
Based on preliminary estimates, the project could cost up to $8.5 million in capital upgrades to the county's central water system, plus ongoing upkeep starting at $973,000 a year, according to a county report.
"I'm assuming this will be necessary because our roads will be so bad we won't be able to drive to the dentist," said Elizabeth Van Dyke of Guerneville, in what became a recurring theme about the county's spending priorities.
Fluoride is a chemical compound and was introduced to U.S. drinking water nearly 70 years ago. About three-quarters of the nation's population served by public water systems, or about 196 million people, are now receiving fluoridated water.
The measure is backed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the surgeon general, the World Health Organization and the American Dental Association, which called it "the single most effective public health measure to prevent dental decay."
Currently in Sonoma County, the only fluoridated water is delivered to residents of Healdsburg, the adjacent Fitch Mountain area and Two Rock Coast Guard Base.
Dr. Lynn Silver Chalfin, the county's health officer, told the board that in Sonoma County every day, 10 to 12 children undergo general anesthesia while being treated for severe dental disease.
She cited a CDC study that found that for every dollar spent on community water fluoridation, the result is a $38 savings on dental expenses.
Stacey Stirling, dental operations manager for St. Joseph Health Sonoma County, described a 5-year-old girl whose face was so swollen because of oral disease her eyes were nearly shut.
Stirling said the girl's parents brought her to the emergency room and that she spent five days in the hospital. The total bill for her dental care: $80,000.
"We see children like this every day," Stirling said. "My fear is that we're going to see a death in Sonoma County, for those children who don't make it in in time."
Santa Rosa dentist Anthony Fernandez, a proponent of fluoride as a preventive measure, said the least expensive filling he offers is $160. He urged supervisors to "do the right thing," and for dramatic effect, he played the shrill sound of a dentist's drill on the public address system via his smartphone.
Opponents were not amused. Several speakers likened fluoride to a toxic substance they said can cause a range of health ailments when ingested, everything from bone cancer to hip fractures.