On Thursday, the Water Advisory Commission listened to the opposition to fluoridation present their case. The meeting, which reportedly lasted three hours, had dozens of public commenters. The WAC will make their recommendation on whether Davis should add fluoride to its water supply at their next meeting.
But ultimately the Davis City Council will have to figure out how to handle this matter. A few weeks ago, we reported that councilmembers and staff may be inclined to put the matter to a vote. While some people have suggested such a notion is preposterous, ironically, this would not be the first public vote on fluoridation.
Professor Emeritus John Lofland, a sociologist by training but an historian of Davis, has posted an account of the 1960 vote on fluoridation in Davis that resulted in a narrow defeat. In fact, he notes on his blog, Davis History Today, this was the first of four episodes on the public debate on fluoridating water.
The January 14, 1960, Davis Enterprise reported that the council unanimously voted to adopt a proposal that would have called for authorization to fluoridate the municipal water supply in order “to prevent dental decay.”
The resolution received four votes, with one member being absent, and there was said to be “no debate.” The vote appears to have coincided with the 1960 council elections that saw five candidates for three council positions while the fluoridation issue was said to be “even more hotly contested.”
Wrote the Enterprise, “Measure B (fluoridation) has been hotly contested and is expected to be a nip-and-tucker at the polls.”
At the close of polls, the ballot measure was close enough that it was thought to be decided by the absentee ballots. At the close of polls, the measure received 966 votes in support with 1059 opposing it.
Wrote the Enterprise, ” ‘Almost anything can happen’ to close the narrow gaps in one of the most warmly contested elections of the city’s history.”
The final vote was razor thin – a margin of 32 votes, 1108 against to 1076 in favor. Professor Lofland notes one other thing of interest from the 1960, by way of context, that Davis favored Nixon for President while the nation narrowly went to President Kennedy. So the politics of Davis in 1960 were a little different from today.
The issue returned in 1964 – apparently twice. The paper reported, “The attorney allows that in April of 1964 voters here passed an ordinance that called for a supplementing Davis’ water supple (sic) with fluoride (sic) and that in November of the same year they defeated a proposition that would have repealed any ordinances that provided for fluoride.”
It does not appear that fluoridation was ever added, despite the close votes in its favor in 1964.
In contrast to 1960 and 1964, in 1971 the Davis Enterprise on January 11 reports, “Fluoridation of Davis water probably should be a decision for the city council and that body alone and not one to be handled by the initiative petition process,’ said the city attorney James Callaway, Jr., in a memo to council.
“There has always been considerable question in my mind – whether the initiative process is an appropriate one to direct an administrate task,” the city attorney told the council. “Other cities have done and of course we have done it in the past. However, my personal legal opinion is that it is inappropriate.”
On November 23, 1970, petitions on both sides of the issue were presented to council but those did not take the form of any legal petititon.
Meanwhile, the council the next day “left no doubt… that it will decide whether Davis water should be fluoridated but remaining in the wake of over an hour of sometimes stormy debate were strong indications that such a system – because of its high cost – is years away from installation here.”
The Enterprise reports:
“The initial cost is prohibitive,” observed mayor Vigfus Asmundson, who voted against plugging the system into the budget. “I’m not ready to support it at this cost to the community.”
Even councilman Norman Woodbury, who moved approval, had his doubts. “Cost appears to be one of the major items we face,” he said.
Councilman Maynard Skinner, who also favored trying to wedge the system into the budget, remarked the “city’s dwindling reserves could not stand the cost.”
The vote appears to have been 3-2 in favor of fluoridation, with Councilmember Ralph Aronson joining Mr. Skinner and Mr. Woodbury, and Mayor Asmundson and Councilmember Harry Miller dissenting.
The Enterprise reported, “Professor Harold S. Olcott, of UCD’s department of food sciences, was the sole out-and-out proponent of water fluoridation here. He was partially joined by Henry A. Rolewicz, a local dentist, who favored use of fluoride as a tooth decay preventative but opposed placing the chemical in the city water.”
“Olcott, citing several studies which he said found fluoridation a strong tooth decay preventative, stated that fluoridation is ‘the only reasonable thing for the children of Davis.’ He said he had come across no research that proved the chemical toxic to the body.”
On the other hand, Hubert Arnold, a professor of math at UC Davis, “cited numerous cases of studies that he said said either indicated flourides were potentially harmful or that drew erroneous conclusions.”
A statistics instructor, Professor Arnold pointed to what he called the use of faulty math “in its conclusion that most fluoride passes through the body and thus is harmless.”
He said, “Elementary statistics are enough to tell you that this is not the way to conduct an experiment.”
Councilmember Miller used an argument that some opponents of fluoridation have used today when he stated, “What troubles me the most is the ethics of forcing everyone to accept fluoridation of city water. The voters have indicated there is a large number of residents here against it.”
Given this contentious history in Davis, it is remarkable that forty years plus later, we are still revisiting this issue and using many of the same arguments, despite the fact that most of the rest of the nation has fluoridated water and has had it for some time.
—David M. Greenwald reporting