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GULLIXSON: Supervisors show backbone on fluoridation vote


Cheryl Willett is a passionate advocate for improving the oral health of children. It's hard not to be when you see the swelling, the fever and other signs of Sonoma County's monumental problem with decay every day.

"It's amazing. Some of these kids come in and their parents say they have not been complaining about pain," said Willett, a pediatric dentist and director of St. Joseph's Dental Clinic in Southwest Santa Rosa. "But I honestly don't think the children know what it means not to be in pain. That is their normal."

Unfortunately, what has been <CF102>our <CF101>normal — here in a county where more than half of all third-graders have evidence of tooth decay, well above the state average — is to accept this situation as, well, normal.

But there's reason to believe that's changing.

Exhibit A is the unanimous decision by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to move forward with studies — believe it or not — on fluoridating the region's water supply.

The news here is not <CF102>why <CF101>the board voted this way. The benefits of fluoridation are widely understood in other parts of the state and nation and championed by health professionals from the American Medical Association to the American Cancer Society to the World Health Organization.

What's interesting is <CF102>how <CF101>the board voted. It not only endorsed the plan with vigor, but two supervisors went toe-to-toe with the critics, those familiar conspiracy theorists who seem to come out of the woodwork whenever fluoridation is mentioned.

One speaker alleged that it was a tool for "mass mind control." Another called it a "witches' brew of pollutants."

Supervisor Mike McGuire pushed back, calling the contentions "off the charts" and said these theories were "an absolute insult." Supervisor David Rabbitt compared the arguments against fluoridation to the fear-based complaints about vaccinations, a paranoia that unfortunately contributed to Sonoma County having the second highest per-capita rate of whooping cough in the state last year. "As a society we're now living longer than ever, thanks to those vaccines, thanks to fluoride for our teeth," he said. "That's a fact."

All I have to say is good for them.

Their rejoinders were not only measured, they were a refreshing departure from the more traditional governmental response of "Thank you, we are forming a committee to look into your concerns of a global fascist plot for world domination through mind control."

We, too, have become familiar with these arguments. Last week, we published two editorials about the county's growing dental crisis, something most residents seem to know little about.

<NO1><NO>In an editorial on Friday we laid out the problems, referencing an oral health report that identified a "staggering burden of suffering and a growing oral health divide between rich and poor" in the county. Then on Sunday we endorsed a series of solutions, including the big one — fluoridating our water. Given the decline in dental health coverage as well as the paucity of funds available to confront problems of this scale, fluoridation is the most cost-efficient solution. But we knew the naysayers would respond in force, and we were not disappointed.

"Fluoridation is raping people of their IQ," noted one email we received from Fairbanks, Alaska within hours.

"Fluoride is an industrial waste product<NO1><NO>,<NO1><NO>" wrote a Santa Rosa resident.

(Fluoride is actually a natural element, which is why nearly 9 million people in the nation have it as part of their natural water supplies.)

"I was shocked, disappointed and saddened by your editorial .<TH>.<TH>." responded another. "Gentlemen, fluoride is a neurotoxin!"

By Monday, we had received emails from people professing or providing links to "conclusive" evidence that fluoridation causes — deep breath here — cancer, osteoporosis, kidney failure, thyroid dysfunction, obesity, low energy, diabetes, neurological disorders, infertility, hormonal imbalances, heart disease, arthritis and brain damage.

Wow. One wonders how Minnesota <CF101>Maryland, Kentucky, Georgia, North Dakota, Indiana and Illinois </CF>— states where 95 percent or more public water systems are fluoridated — continue to function? For that matter, one wonders how nearly 200 million Americans — which is roughly how many drink, cook with and blow bubbles in the backyard with fluoridated water — are still alive and/or mentally awake? <CF101>This would include those who live in such major cities as San Francisco and New York, hardly the land of the credulous.

</CF>Is it possible that any of these contentions are true? Of course. But as the supervisors seemed to grasp, whether to move forward on fluoridation should hinge not on Internet-fueled possibilities but on evidence-based probabilities. And so far there's no question about what outcome is more probable.

The simple truth is one cannot prove a negative. You cannot prove there will be no ill effects from fluoridation any more than you can prove no one will be hurt if it rains tomorrow. But we need rain for the overall public good. And we need fluoridation for the same reason.

Of course, this isn't a panacea for all the county's tooth ailments. We still need more clinics and more awareness. We need to drink more water and less soda. And we<NO1><NO> will still depend on the heroic efforts of professionals such as Willett who are out there giving of their time and resources to meet the dental needs of the uninsured and underinsured.

<NO1><NO>But fluoridating our water would be a major step toward creating a new normal, particularly for children who don't know what it's like to live without pain.

As this debate rages, let's not lose our resolve to go there.

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<CF102>Our Friday editorial reported that St. Joseph's Foundation is trying to raise $390,000 to replace its mobile dental unit which treats thousands of Sonoma County children a year but needs extensive repairs and is now parked. Donations may be made through www.stjosephhealth.org or by calling 547-4680.

Paul Gullixson is editorial director for The Press Democrat. Email him at paul.gullixson@pressdemocrat.com.