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Spokane City Council seeks feedback ahead of fluoride vote

Spokane's drinking water has fluoride levels of 0.1 milligrams per liter. A city council vote could increase it to the federal recommendation of 0.7 mg/L.

SPOKANE, Wash. — Spokane City Council is asking for feedback from residents ahead of a vote on adding fluoride to the city's drinking water. 

A virtual community forum will be held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. and will be open for public testimony. Those who want to give comment must sign up online between 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Thursday.

It will be available to watch online through CityCable 5

Fluoridation of Spokane's water supply is a controversial topic that has drawn criticism and support from residents and local leaders alike. The proposal has been shot down three times by voters since the 1960s. 

The national debate over fluoride started in the 1940s when Grand Rapids, Michigan, became the first U.S. city to add fluoride to its water supply, according to Kaiser Health. In the decades since, opposition has usually stemmed from studies linking fluoride intake by children with lower IQs and potential toxicity. 

Spokane is the largest city in Washington state without fluoridated water, according to a policy brief published by the Spokane Regional Health District. The nearby cities of Cheney and Fairchild Air Force Base add fluoride to their public water supply, as do Boise, Yakima and Tacoma, according to the brief.

The City of Spokane’s drinking water currently has fluoride levels of 0.1 milligrams per liter. A local student health association is asking city council to increase those levels to the federal recommendation of 0.7 mg/L.

RELATED: Why Spokane is considering adding fluoride to city drinking water

In a Facebook post, Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward Nadine Woodward encouraged people to participate in the community forum. She said the city has a "long history with water fluoridation," adding that voters most recently turned down a proposal in 2000. 

"That was a long time ago. But now, the issue is being considered again. Only this time, not at the ballot, but as an Emergency Order by the City Council. An Emergency Order in the midst of our community’s Covid Recovery," Woodward wrote in her Facebook post. 

"How is fluoridating our drinking water related to Covid? It’s not. Providing rental assistance to keep people in their homes, grants to struggling small businesses and childcare support for families who are fortunate to still be working, certainly are," the post continues. "YOU should decide whether our city’s drinking water is altered! And it should be at the ballot."

Dr. Bob Lutz, who serves as health officer for Spokane County, acknowledged during a press conference on Wednesday that fluoride is a "controversial topic" at the local and national levels. 

"If you look at from a purely public health standpoint, especially if you focus on equity issues, we know that fluoride was acknowledged to be one of the top 10 public health achievements of the 20th century," he said. 

Lutz said adding fluoride to the water has "significant benefits." According to the policy brief, more than six out of 10 third-graders in Spokane had a cavity in 2015 compared to 53% statewide. 

Nearly one in six third-graders had rampant decay affecting seven or more teeth. This was higher among Black, American Indian, Alaskan Native, Asian, Pacific Islander and Hispanic children than white children. Lower-income children were also more likely to have cavities than their higher-income peers, according to local data. 

A study out of New Zealand published in mid-August suggests that community water fluoridation is a worthwhile intervention associated with reduced rates of severe tooth damage caused by decay in preschool children, according to the American Dental Association.

The city water department estimates $6 million in capital costs to make the change. Council President Breean Beggs said health care and insurance organizations would fund the upgrade. 

The water department estimates up to $600,000 per year in operational costs. This would be paid for by city water customers.

Council is expected to vote on an ordinance that would kick off the transition on September 14. If and when the ordinance is passed, it will still likely take up to a few years for fluoridation to be fully implemented.