Fluoridation Vote Still Uncertain in Bellingham, Wash. The citizens of Bellingham, Wash., voted last week on a proposal to begin fluoridating the town's water -- but they still don't know which side won. The vote split almost evenly and the recount seems to be taking as long as the Bush-Gore challenge in Florida in 2000. And like that challenge, there's a similar amount of passion surrounding the issue. Martin Kaste reports.
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Fluoridation Vote Still Uncertain in Bellingham, Wash.

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Fluoridation Vote Still Uncertain in Bellingham, Wash.

Fluoridation Vote Still Uncertain in Bellingham, Wash.

Fluoridation Vote Still Uncertain in Bellingham, Wash.

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The citizens of Bellingham, Wash., voted last week on a proposal to begin fluoridating the town's water — but they still don't know which side won. The vote split almost evenly and the recount seems to be taking as long as the Bush-Gore challenge in Florida in 2000. And like that challenge, there's a similar amount of passion surrounding the issue. Martin Kaste reports.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The election has come and gone, but they're still counting ballots in Bellingham, Washington. At issue? The vote on fluoride in the city's water. It was a campaign that ran pretty hot. One pro-fluoride supporter reportedly found a dead rat in his mailbox. Around the country, fluoridation is back as a political issue, and as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, fluoride opponents believe the tide is turning their way.

MARTIN KASTE reporting:

It's not easy being an anti-fluoridation campaigner. Everyone still remembers the movie "Dr. Strangelove."

(Soundbite of "Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb")

Mr. STERLING HAYDEN: (As Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper) Do you realize that fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous Communist plot we have ever had to face?

(Soundbite of gunfire)

KASTE: The `Strangelovian' take on the anti-fluoridation movement is echoed in today's campaign ads.

(Soundbite of campaign ad)

Unidentified Man: The opponents will make wild claims and see dark conspiracies. But in the meantime, the teeth of these communities will continue to decay, gums will recede.

KASTE: This video, produced by Bellingham Families For Fluoride, is none too subtle in its opinion of the opposition.

(Soundbite of campaign ad)

Unidentified Man: It sometimes feels as if the Flat Earth Society has returned to the 21st century.

KASTE: Chemistry Professor Paul Connett runs the Internet-based Fluoride Action Network, a source of information for anti-fluoridation campaigns. He says it's hard to beat fluoridation's white lab coat image.

Professor PAUL CONNETT (Fluoride Action Network): Authority wins out. And if that authority continues to use this kooky image and try to pretend that the sci--there's no science saying that it's dangerous, of course, they're going to win.

KASTE: He says that he, too, used to think fluoridation opponents were crazy until he saw research showing links between high doses and bone diseases. Studies showing a link between disease and low doses of fluoride are more scarce. The only generally recognized side effect is tooth fluorosis, brown and white spots on children's teeth. Connett says more damning studies are being suppressed, but he says that seems to be changing. He's heartened by a National Academy of Sciences research panel that's finishing up a new report on fluoridation.

Prof. CONNETT: This time, we've got people out there who've got an open mind, even a couple who are opposed to fluoridation.

KASTE: That panel has been working behind closed doors for three years and hopes to send its report to the Environmental Protection Agency soon. The chairman won't discuss the composition of the panel, but other experts will.

Dr. BERNARD WAGNER (Former Chairman, Water Fluoridation Panel): It's an overwhelming demonstration of politics.

KASTE: Dr. Bernard Wagner chaired the previous panel on water fluoridation in 1993, and he's scandalized by the makeup of this new one.

Dr. WAGNER: If I sat down to look for the most eminent scientists in the United States to determine the safety of fluoride in drinking water, I don't think these people would be on my committee.

KASTE: He says fluoridation opponents are sowing unreasonable fears.

Dr. WAGNER: Will there be someone out of 300 million Americans who will develop something unusual which is a response to fluoride that we have never seen before? Of course.

KASTE: But he says that tiny risk is worth it in order to protect the teeth of children too poor or isolated to get good dental care. Opponents call this forced medication and at the moment, that argument seems to be winning over many Americans. In local elections last week, at least three communities rejected fluoridation, and in Bellingham, where the pro-fluoridation campaign vastly outspent the opposition, the vote tally is still far too close to call. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

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