ITHACA, N.Y. -- The presidential and U.S. Senate races are not the only contests roiling the waters in Ithaca. On Nov. 7, residents will vote on a referendum that could allow fluoridation of the municipal water supply for the first time in the upstate city.
A Cornell University research class has found that while a vocal minority opposes fluoridation, city residents appear to support it.
"This is a good example of a minority being very loud and persistent. Our poll shows, however, that a large majority in the community does not share their concerns about negative consequences of fluoridation," says Dietram Scheufele, Cornell assistant professor of communication, who teaches an undergraduate course in polling and research, called Communication Industry Research Methods.
The class found that 48.7 percent of those polled in surrounding Tompkins County support water fluoridation, while 43.7 percent oppose it, and 7.6 percent are not sure. Excluding the undecided, these results translate into 52.7 percent for fluoridation and 47.3 percent against it, says Scheufele. The poll has a 4 percent margin of error.
Among those polled between Oct. 11 and Oct. 20 were 155 residents of the city of Ithaca, or about one-third of the sample. About 56 percent of the Ithacans polled favored fluoridation, and 37.4 percent opposed it, and the remaining were undecided.
Interestingly, the poll showed that, in general, most people agree that fluoridated water has many potential benefits. More than 76 percent accept that it aids in preventing tooth decay and that it can lower tooth decay among children.
Ithaca has never had a fluoridated municipal water supply, although fluoridation has long been used in New York state metropolitan areas. Generally, between 50 and 65 percent of the U.S. population is served by fluoridated municipal water. Opponents of the measure in Ithaca suggest that fluoridation leads to medical problems, such as cancer, bone problems and Alzheimer's disease. The Cornell study found that more than 90 percent do not believe that water fluoridation leads to Alzheimer's and other brain diseases. More than 86 percent do not believe that fluoridation causes cancer, and more than 82 percent do not believe that fluoridation has any harmful effect on bones. "Regardless of where they stand on the issue, people don't believe these claims," says Scheufele.
"Our poll also shows that some opponents of fluoridation have a negative view of science, more generally. About 20 percent of respondents believe that science is too hard to understand or that we rely too much on science and not enough on faith," he says. "And if you read the editorial content of the local newspapers, you will find that a lot of press is given to this vocal minority because they are the ones making it an issue. Our poll suggests, however, that most people realize the benefits of fluoridation and don't really see significant risks."
Only a minority of those polled said they regularly use fluoride supplements such as mouthwash (21.7 percent) or tablets (8.8 percent) or visit the dentist regularly for fluoride treatments (28.6 percent). Scheufele notes that 84.3 percent polled use fluoride toothpaste.
At the same time, the poll showed that most people use tap water for cooking (90.3 percent) or drink tap water (70.8 percent), which, Scheufele says, makes using a municipal water supply a potentially convenient way of providing citizens with fluoride. People who drink tap water or use it for cooking and people who use various fluoride supplements also are significantly more likely to support fluoridation of drinking water, he says.
Knowledge about fluoridation in Ithaca is extremely low, the poll found, with only about 17 percent of respondents able to answer at least one of three questions about fluoride.