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Seattle voters approve fluoridation of city water on November 5, 1968.
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On November 5, 1968, Seattle voters approve fluoridation of city water. Supporters assert that fluoride will reduce tooth decay in children. Opponents claim that the chemical is harmful and an unwanted intrusion by government.
Twice before in Seattle's history, fluoridation was the topic of a public referendum. In 1952, the citizens of Seattle voted 45,612 for and 88,168 against fluoridation. In 1963, the proposal was once again defeated, although by a smaller margin of 58,593 to 43,747 votes.
The fluoridation question resurfaced on the City Council's agenda in 1968. Proponents of fluoridation included the State Health Department, Dental Associations, and a group of women called Mothers for Fluoridation. On April 8, 1968, the Mothers' group presented Council President Floyd C. Miller with a petition bearing approximately 3,500 signatures requesting that the city's water be "adjusted to contain one part fluoride for every million parts of water" (The Seattle Times, April 8, 1968).
Statistics showed that fluoride hardened teeth, and thus reduced tooth decay by as much as 65 percent. In presenting the petition, Patricia Schultz said that, based on State Health Department statistics, parents would save between $700,000 and $1 million per year in dentist bills as a result of fluoridation. Dr. Olin Hoffman, head of the State Health Department's Dental-Health Section, described fluoridation as "one of the greatest public-health measures of all time" (Seattle Times, May 14, 1968). One of the key arguments put forth by those in favor of fluoridation was that underprivileged and low-income families could not afford proper dental care for their children, so voluntary fluoridation, such as drops, tablets or vitamin-additives, was out of the question. Fluoridation of the city's water would therefore be of great benefit to the poor.
Opponents of fluoridation, such as the Pure Water Association, were equally vociferous, and dismissed State Department estimates as unsound. They also raised the mass medication question. This held that fluoridation would force a treatment upon those who oppose it on religious grounds. Others warned of health hazards, such as mottled teeth, illness, or even death. Some opposition pamphlets were quite extreme in their views. One pamphlet stated "once the authorities have gotten around to doctoring your water to stop your teeth from
rotting (through fluoridation), it is only a short step to doctoring it to prevent your mind from functioning" (The Seattle Times, November 1, 1968)
In the hopes of finding a happy medium between the two sides, B. J. Hartz, a Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Washington, proposed adding
fluorides to milk instead of to water. Unfluoridated milk would continue to be available, of course. This suggestion was quickly dismissed by the Seattle-King
County Health Department, for numerous reasons, including cost, effectiveness, and control.
A public hearing on the fluoridation issue took place on June 28, 1968, after which the City Council voted 5 to 4 to fluoridate Seattle's water. Existing laws granted state and local officials the power to compel fluoridation without first seeking a public referendum. However, according to the City's Charter, opponents
had 30 days following the Council's vote to gather signatures equal in number to 8 percent of the votes cast for Mayor in the last general election (in this case approximately 14,000 signatures were needed), to put the question to a public referendum.
Surprisingly, however, on July 22, 1968, City Council did an about face by choosing to refer the fluoridation issue to voters. Councilman Tim Hill, who had pushed strongly for fluoridation, said "I am literally shocked and amazed that members of the Council who voted against putting this on the ballot would now change their minds without even discussing the matter beforehand."
Myrtle Edwards (1894-1969), one of the two Council members who changed her vote, defended her actions by saying "some poor people are really frightened of fluoridated water" (Seattle P-I, July 23, 1968).
On November 5, 1968, Seattle voters approved the fluoridation proposal by 121,047 to 93,142. In a public statement by Dr. Sanford Lehman, Director of
Seattle-King County Health Department, fluoride was to be added to the City's water "in order to reduce the incidence of dental caries (tooth decay) among
young people in a long-range preventative program" (The Seattle Times,
December 13, 1969). The estimated cost for equipment and operation was $0.20 per person, per year. On January 12, 1970, Canadian-made liquid fluoride officially began to flow into Seattle City water.
In 2000, a study in the British Medical Journal credited fluoride with reducing tooth decay by 15 percent, but acknowledged that mottled teeth occurred 48 percent of the time.
City of Seattle Archives, Series 1802-B4, Box 1, Folders 8, 9, and 10, Files 216078, 247766, and 262435; "Council Reversal Leaves Fluoridation Up to Voters," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 23, 1968, p. 1; "Mothers' Group Petitions for Fluoridation of City Water," The Seattle Times, April 8, 1968, p. 3; Herb Robinson, "Fluoridation Battle Looms Once Again," Ibid., May 14, 1968, A; Douglas Willix, "City Council Approves Fluoridation," Ibid., June 28, 1968, p. 1; "City Council Hears Fluoridation Pleas," Ibid., June 28, 1968, p. 31; "Fluoridation of Milk Supplies Instead of Water is Proposed," Ibid., August 4, 1968, p. 20; Herb Robinson, "Fluoridation Foes Scare Tactics are Unprecedented," Ibid., November 1, 1968, p. 11; "Fluoridation of Milk Opposed," Ibid., September 5, 1968, p. 2; "Date for Fluoridation Set," Ibid., December 13, 1969, p. 33; Al Dieffenbach, "Fluoride Will Begin Flowing in Limited Amounts This Week," Ibid., January 11, 1970, p.A-1; Emma Ross, "Study: Fluoridation Harmless," Ibid., October 6, 2000, p. A-23.
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