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Watsonville's fluoridation fight

Editorial

Some in the Santa Cruz County agricultural city, including cider maker Martinelli's, are campaigning to stop the treating of its water.

February 19, 2010

During the Middle Ages, pogroms throughout Europe were instigated by rumors that Jews were poisoning the wells. Then during the Cold War, when communists became the Western world's boogeymen, conspiracy theorists believed fluoridated water was a Red plot to destroy our society. Today, with modern chemical testing and health studies, it might seem we're in a position to leave this kind of water hysteria behind. But not in Watsonville.

A recent push to fluoridate the water in that Santa Cruz County agricultural city has prompted a public outcry and a threat by a key employer to leave town. City voters passed an initiative to block fluoridation in 2002, but courts later ruled that the mandate violated a 1995 state law dictating that cities fluoridate their water if there is an outside source of funding available to do so. In Watsonville, that source is a foundation allied with the California Dental Assn., which is willing to put up $1.5 million to help fight a local epidemic of tooth disease. One pediatrician treating the children of migrant farmworkers in Watsonville told The Times that she had "never seen such bad teeth outside Nicaragua."

Watsonvillians, of course, aren't the only people who fear fluoridation. Although studies have largely debunked claims that fluoridated water causes cancer or kidney failure, there are some legitimate questions about whether concentration thresholds could be exceeded in a handful of places where natural fluoride levels in tap water are already high.

Yet such minor concerns hardly justify the public fury in Watsonville, which is reminiscent of a similar flare-up that occurred when Los Angeles moved to fluoridate in the late 1990s. It doesn't seem to matter that urban-dwellers have been drinking fluoridated water for decades with no ill effects. Or that it has been ruled safe by scientists and courts -- including a California Court of Appeal, which ruled in a landmark 1973 decision that adding the chemical to water supplies is "a reasonable and proper exercise of the police power in the interest of public health." The issue still has the power to rile.

We suspect what's fueling today's outrage is the same phenomenon that propels "tea party" rallies around the country: a profound distrust of government. That will make it tough for the City Council to do the right thing by local children's teeth, especially because the Martinelli’s beverage company is threatening to move production of a new line of fruit juices out of town if the plan goes forward. If Martinelli's, whose famous sparkling apple cider and other sweet drinks have probably contributed to more than their share of cavities, succeeds in blocking fluoridation, it's going to owe its community a lot of toothpaste.

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