As the election returns rolled in, armies of reporters across the country went to work exploring the fate of candidates in local state and national races.
Annie Calovich of The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle had the task of exploring the fate of fluoride.
The city’s hotly contested fluoride initiative, backed by local doctors and dentists, but strongly opposed by anti-fluoride activists, went down to defeat on Nov 6. Voters in city of Wichita rejected fluoridated water as they did in 1964 and 1978.
All over the country, jurisdictions are fighting over fluoride. In September, the city council in Portland, Ore., voted to fluoridate city drinking water in an effort to reduce tooth decay. In August, Milwaukee reduced the level of fluoride in its water after a city alderman launched a campaign to completely eliminate it. A year ago, in a decision that also had implications in Nov. 6 elections, Pinellas County, Fla., commissioners voted to stop adding fluoride to drinking water (more about that in a minute.)
Public health officials and state and local dental groups stand up for community fluoridation, which has been hailed by the Centers for Disease Control as one of the great public health achievements of the 20th century. For more than 65 years, communities across the United States have been supplementing naturally occurring fluoride in water supplies to promote oral health. At what are considered optimum levels, numerous studies have shown fluoride reduces cavities.
But too much fluoride can be a bad thing, public health officials have acknowledged. Consumption at excess levels may cause fluorosis and skeletal deformities, research has found.
Fluoride opponents continue to insist that any fluoride is bad.
Wichita pediatrician Larry Hund, a leader in Wichita’s fluoridation campaign, told Calovich that he and his allies had worked hard to explain the oral health benefits of fluoride to voters.
“We have 14,000 patients; we talked to a lot of parents and tried to do a lot of education. I wish we could have done more education,” he said. But he added: “It’s easier to scare people than to teach them about the science involved.”
“He said that the claim that fluoride is toxic played more to emotion than to science, and that people who were able to understand the science advocated fluoride,” Calovich wrote.
Meanwhile, she found that anti-fluoride forces in Wichita had a powerful supporter in Mark S. Gietzen, president of the Kansas Republican Assembly.
Pleased with the victory in Wichita, the Republican leader told the Eagle he planned to continue to fight fluoride on a larger scale.
“We’re definitely going to take this statewide; we’re not going to quit,” Gietzen said. He suggested he might begin to work toward a state recommendation against fluoridation while still allowing communities to decide for themselves whether they wanted it.
“Since I am connected to the National Federation of Republican Assemblies … I’m going to try to make fluoride one of our core issues,” Gietzen said. He likened fluoride to lead and asbestos: “Things that we thought were right back then maybe were not such a good idea after all. That’s where we are with fluoride.”
But down in Florida, Tampa Bay Times staff writers Anna M. Phillips and Anne Lindberg had a different post-election fluoride story to tell. They documented the downfall of two anti-fluoride politicians in their Nov. 7 story “Pinellas County commissioners blame fluoride vote for failed re-election bids.”
The defeated commissioners, Nancy Bostock and Neil Brickfield “were part of a bloc of commissioners who voted … to stop adding the cavity-fighting mineral to the county’s drinking water,” the reporters wrote.
“The four commissioners who opposed fluoride said they were motivated by concern for public health while critics called the vote as a capitulation to tea party extremists who believe fluoride is harmful.”
“The voters clearly said they want fluoride in the water,” Brickfield told the Tampa Bay Times. “And I will never vote against fluoride again as long as I live.”
Bostock said the fluoride issue was unfairly emphasized by the newspaper in its election reporting and editorials.
“When I was out in the community the topic of fluoride came up very, very little. But the coverage of it was excessive,” Bostock said.
In a Nov. 1 editorial “The Real Cost of the Fluoride Fiasco” the newspaper featured brief stories about several families, including one with a dental hygienist mom, now spending their own money on fluoride supplements since their children no longer get fluoride in their drinking water.
“Pinellas County commissioners did not just ignore established science when they voted 4-3 to stop adding fluoride … to the county’s drinking water. They also cost families plenty of money and unlimited frustration, because dentists are now advising parents to give fluoride to their children to prevent tooth decay,’’ the newspaper’s editorial board wrote.
“Their challengers, Charlie Justice and Janet Long, support restoring fluoride to the county’s drinking water. It only takes one new commissioner to reverse the backward decision — and save Pinellas County families time, money and frustration,” the editorial noted.
The paper urged county voters to oust Bostock and Brickfield. And voters did.
Politifact Oregon: Do cities really save $38 for every $1 they spend on fluoridation?