By PAUL ROGERS | firstname.lastname@example.org | Bay Area News Group
In the latest step toward the effort by dentists and health officials to end San Jose’s status as the largest city in America without fluoride in its drinking water, Santa Clara County has contributed $1 million to add fluoride for the first time to drinking water from wells operated by the San Jose Water Company.
On Tuesday, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to spend $1,027,713 from the county general fund to help install fluoridation equipment on six new wells being constructed by San Jose Water Company for customers of East San Jose.
“We wanted to start in East San Jose where the need is greatest because those residents and children have the least access to dental care and there are issues of rampant tooth decay,” said Supervisor Cindy Chavez.
The Health Trust will contribute $694,757 toward the $1.7 million project — $180,900 came from the city of San Jose. The nonprofit organization in San Jose funds Silicon Valley health programs, from diabetes testing to Meals on Wheels and children’s dental clinics.
The wells, planned for a five-acre lot at McLaughlin Avenue and Carnelian Drive, are scheduled to be finished by next summer, with the fluoride equipment installed and working by 2019.
Roughly 64 percent of California residents receive fluoridated water. San Francisco has had it since 1951, Oakland since 1976, Los Angeles since 1999 and San Diego since 2011. Other parts of Santa Clara County, such as Palo Alto, which receives water from the Hetch Hetchy system, are fluoridated.
A naturally occurring mineral, fluoride was first added to drinking water in Michigan in 1945 as a way to strengthen teeth and reduce cavities. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called it “one of the 10 greatest public health achievements of the 20th century,” citing studies that it reduces tooth decay by 25 percent.
On Tuesday, four people spoke in favor of the plan, and one against.
“Fluoride is naturally occurring, but so is lead and arsenic,” said Gary Wesley of Mountain View, a long-time fluoride opponent. “And you wouldn’t want to take that. There’s a better way to go and that is to invest your money in individualized care, through dental insurance.”
Todd Hansen, chief operating officer of the Health Trust, said his nonprofit group is helping fund fluoridation projects with a focus on East San Jose, rather than wealthier areas like Willow Glen.
“Bad teeth can cause all sorts of other diseases, and it can have a big impact on kids — their ability to learn and their ability to eat healthy,” Hansen said. The organization performs thousands of dental procedures every year for low-income children in the county, including 6,000 root canals a year for infants.
Overall, the scope of the new project is somewhat limited. Although officials from the Health Trust and Chavez’s office originally said it would serve 400,000 residents, officials from San Jose Water, which owns the pipes and sends the bills to customers, said the actual number is 95,000 people, or about 7 percent of its 1 million customers, according to Jayme Ackemann, a spokeswoman for San Jose Water.
Hansen said the Health Trust will continue raising money to expand fluoride to other wells in the years ahead, a strategy supported by Santa Clara County Health Officer Sara Cody, the California Dental Association, Silicon Valley Leadership Group and others.
Overall, San Jose Water has 108 wells at 27 locations in Santa Clara County, and the six wells at the new site at McLaughlin Avenue will be the first to have fluoride added.
Studies by the Health Trust have concluded it would cost $23 million to connect fluoridation equipment to all 108 wells owned by San Jose Water, or $12 million for all the wells serving East San Jose.
Under a state law signed in 1995 by former Gov. Pete Wilson, water providers with more than 10,000 connections are required to add fluoride. But they were not mandated to pay for it, so they are only required when someone else puts up the money. Santa Clara County has set aside $4 million for fluoridation projects.
The reason that San Jose remains the largest U.S. city without broad fluoridation is largely due to San Jose Water. In 1964, San Jose voters approved adding fluoride to city water by a 59-41 percent margin. But San Jose Water, a for-profit company traded on the New York Stock Exchange, argued it shouldn’t have to pay the costs. The state Public Utilities Commission, which regulates privately owned water companies, in 1969 closed the case and did not require the company to fluoridate.
Today, San Jose Water provides water to 80 percent of San Jose’s residents, along with Los Gatos, Saratoga, Monte Sereno, Campbell and parts of Cupertino. Roughly 40 of the company’s supply comes from unfluoridated groundwater, 50 percent comes from water imported from the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta and 10 percent comes from local reservoirs.
Fluoridation advocates won a major victory in 2011 when the Santa Clara Valley Water District, the county’s water wholesaler, voted to add fluoride at its three drinking water treatment plants. The plants treat water from the Delta and sell it to San Jose Water and other retail providers. The first system went online last December at the Santa Teresa Plant, and the second went online this summer at the Penitencia Plant. The two plants are providing fluoridated water to 230,000 residents of in East San Jose, Almaden Valley and Santa Teresa who are customers of San Jose Water Company.
Work at the other treatment plant, Rinconada, is expected to be completed by 2020. Then, another 520,000 people will receive fluoride, including residents of West San Jose, Cupertino, Saratoga and parts of Los Gatos.
But people who receive groundwater from San Jose Water Company have not had fluoride. As a result, in some areas, when that groundwater is blended with the Delta water from the Santa Clara Valley Water District, it has reduced levels of fluoride below the .7 parts per million recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The new project at McLaughlin Avenue will begin to change that.
“The addition of fluoride at these wells will allow us to maintain optimal levels of fluoride throughout the year for the residents who are receiving this water,” said Ackemann.