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Ventura County

Fluoride Issue Likely to Roil City's Waters

Health: After years of sidestepping a state mandate on the treatment, which many residents oppose, Ventura is taking initial steps toward compliance.

November 25, 2001|LISA LEFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

After six years on the local public health agenda, the politically painful task of deciding whether to add fluoride to Ventura's water supply appears to be headed toward the new City Council.

A 19-member coalition of local dentists, doctors, educators and child advocates, acting at the urging of a statewide task force that promotes fluoridated drinking water as a way to ward off tooth decay, has been meeting with Ventura city officials to press the hotly debated issue.

The discussions have yielded enough encouragement from city officials and others to convince pro-fluoride activists, who describe fluoridated water as a cheap, effective means of preventing cavities in low-income children, that the time has come to bring the matter before the City Council, said Caroline Turner, executive director of the Santa Barbara-Ventura County Dental Society.

"I believe we have support, widespread support," said Turner, whose group is spearheading the effort.

Among those who have endorsed the idea are Ventura County Public Health Director Michael Levin, former county Supervisor Susan K. Lacey and the Ventura Unified school board, which voted 5 to 0 last month in favor of fluoridating the city's water.

Ventura is one of 167 California communities affected by a 1995 law requiring cities with more than 10,000 water hookups to fluoridate their water once the money for equipment is available. The law was approved after a federal government survey showed that California ranked 47th among states in terms of its residents' access to fluoridated water.

But officials in Ventura, as well as those in Oxnard, Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley, so far have been able to sidestep the mandate--and the rancorous arguments surrounding the merits of fluoridation--because the law did not provide any additional government funding. Port Hueneme, where the City Council approved a fluoridation plan on a 3-2 vote in 1997, is currently the only Ventura County city with fluoridated water.

During a meeting last month with Turner, Levin and other fluoridation proponents, however, Ventura Mayor Sandy Smith and Public Works Director Ron Calkins took a first step toward changing that when they agreed to come up with a cost estimate for installing fluoridation equipment at the city's two water treatment plants. The city has construction work scheduled at the treatment plants for next year, "making it a good time" financially to fluoridate, according to Turner.

Smith and Calkins, while offering no guarantees on whether the council will ultimately decide to fluoridate, also authorized the coalition to determine whether Ventura is eligible for a portion of the $15 million that the California Fluoridation Task Force has raised to speed up the law's implementation. Most of the grant money, which may be used to offset capital and maintenance costs, has come from the California Endowment, a nonprofit health care organization established by Blue Cross.

Once the estimate is in and the grant issue resolved, the coalition hopes to take the matter to the City Council for consideration.

Ventura Likely to Qualify for Grant

Turner said she is optimistic that Ventura will qualify for one of the grants because, when the fluoridation law was adopted, cities were ranked based on how cost-effective they would be to fluoridate. At that time Ventura came in second, after the Helix water district in San Diego County.

"If Ventura wants the funds, they are available for them," Turner said.

David Nelson, a Sacramento dentist who is the fluoridation consultant to the California Department of Health Services, agreed.

"We are very interested in fluoridating Ventura," he said, noting that the top-ranked Helix district has already agreed to fluoridate. "Because they are No. 2 on our list, they are right on top of our radar screen."

Although Jim Passanisi, Ventura's water superintendent, thinks the original $113,000 estimate on which that ranking was made was much too low, Nelson said that with $8 million still available for qualified cities, Ventura remains a strong candidate for having its entire fluoridation budget covered.

"Sure, they might not be No. 2 any longer, but their cost-per-service connection is still low"--and since Ventura also has "a lot of underserved people and a tremendous amount of need," the task force would get "lots of bang for its buck in Ventura," Nelson said.

The cities of Los Angeles, San Diego, Sacramento, Daly City, Escondido and Mountain View have qualified for fluoridation grants.

Costs, however, could be the least of the City Council's concerns as it prepares to sink its teeth into a topic that has produced competing scientific studies, conspiracy theories and marathon public hearings elsewhere.

Anti-fluoride groups, chief among them the San Diego-based Citizens for Safe Drinking Water, have fought fluoridation proposals wherever they have popped up, linking the substance to a host of problems ranging from lead poisoning and increased cancer risks to mottled teeth.

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