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County not likely to put fluoridation on ballot

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The public water fluoridation debate will end Wednesday, with fluoridation advocates the losers.

The Salt Lake County Commission is expected to vote Wednesday against putting a water fluoridation measure on November's ballot. It would have allowed voters to decide if they want fluoride in the public drinking water supply.According to conversations with commissioners, the vote will be 2-1, with commissioners Brent Overson and Mary Callaghan voting against the ballot measure, and Commissioner Randy Horiuchi voting for it.

Horiuchi, whose wife is a professor of dental hygiene at Weber State University, said he believes the dental health benefits of fluoridation are sound, the risks overstated and the cost minimal.

Overson, however, cited conversations he's had with people who say their health would be adversely affected by fluoridation. He said he spoke with one elderly woman who told him she's allergic to fluoride and would have to drink bottled water if the public water supply were fluoridated.

"That to me was a compelling interest," he said. "Why should we put her through that - or a lot of other people, for that matter?"

Callaghan noted that the population served by fluoridation is relatively small - small children, whose growing teeth are benefited by fluoride. In addition, she said there are even fewer numbers of children whose parents are unable to provide fluoride in some way.

Both Overson and Callaghan said other, more limited, methods of helping poorer children get fluoride are better than the all-encompassing shotgun approach of water fluoridation, such as providing fluoride rinses or drops in county health clinics for minimal cost. Callaghan noted that some elementary schools already provide fluoride for their students.

"This is one of those issues that once it's in your water, you have to go to a great effort not to have fluoride," Callaghan said. "You have to buy bottled water or do something else - it would be very difficult to get away from. When we're only talking about a very small population of concern, why are we doing it?"

The Salt Lake City-County Board of Health recently voted unanimously to recommend the ballot measure to commissioners. Health department spokeswoman Jana Carlson declined comment on the commissioners' anticipated action.

"It's hard for us to respond, because we're waiting for tomorrow's vote," she said Tuesday.

Fluoridation of the public drinking supply has been and continues to be a controversial issue, eliciting strong responses from both sides. Proponents maintain it is a no-brainer boon for children's dental health that would save significantly in dental bills and help those too poor for regular dental care. Opponents say fluoridation's benefits are unproven and possibly dangerous and that it is an unwarranted government intrusion into citizens' private affairs.

The two sides do agree that fluoride benefits only children, but disagree on its effect on adults. One says it has no effect, while the other says it may have all sorts of dilatory effects ranging from illness to crumbling tooth enamel.

The commission will be bucking public opinion on this issue. A recent Deseret News poll showed 91 percent of Salt Lake County residents support voting on whether to put fluoride in the public water supply, while 65 percent support fluoridation itself.

This may not be the end of the matter. In a court case challenging the commission's reversal last summer on whether to put a change-of-government plan on the ballot, a 3rd District judge ruled that the commission has the right to change its mind. Nevertheless, Callaghan and Overson say their minds are made up.

"I want the commissioners to make up their minds and let the public know," Overson said.

As commission chairman, it was Overson who put the issue on Wednesday's commission meeting agenda.