CUMBERLAND -- Crime, taxes and schools are the usual campaign fodder in municipal elections, but in two Western Maryland cities the burning topic this spring is one long ago settled in most communities without debate: fluoride.
Barring a last-minute court ruling, Cumberland voters are to decide May 16 whether to repeal a decade-old ban on putting the cavity-fighting chemical in the city's drinking water. In neighboring Frostburg, candidates for mayor and council are squaring off over the fluoride issue as their June 6 election nears.
"It's embarrassing, to be honest with you," says Frostburg Mayor John N. Bambacus. "You'd think in the year 2000 this would be behind us."
Fluoridation opponents have filed a lawsuit seeking to block Cumberland's referendum, questioning the method by which supporters gathered signatures to put the issue on the ballot. The city's attorney argued in Allegany County Circuit Court yesterday that the lawsuit should be dismissed. A ruling is due in the next day or two.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans on public water systems and 90 percent of Marylanders drink fluoridated water. But most communities in Western Maryland have staunchly resisted a measure endorsed by major dental, medical and public health authorities.
"We don't think it should be in drinking water," said M. Virginia Rosenbaum, 78, a Frostburg surveyor and president of the Pure Water Committee, an anti-fluoride group. "It's a deadly poison."
Western Maryland politicians and residents have repeatedly balked over the past 40 years at putting fluoride in public water supplies.
Cumberland voters ousted a popular two-term mayor 10 years ago when he supported the city's short-lived fluoridation of its water. Some credit the independence of Appalachian folk, others the political clout of a vocal group of anti-fluoride activists.
This year, however, the region's dentists, doctors and business advocates have joined to mount a well-funded campaign to bring Cumberland and Frostburg into the fluoride fold.
"We've paid a dear price for letting the unqualified few have the dominant voice on this issue," said Dr. William C. Tompkins, a LaVale dentist and president of the Allegany-Garrett Dental Society. "We have the worst [tooth] decay rates in the state."
A University of Maryland survey five years ago found that children in Western Maryland had the most cavities of any region in the state. That might stem in part from a lack of access to dental care in this impoverished area, with its high unemployment.
But the survey also found that children drinking unfluoridated water had 50 percent more cavities than those consuming treated water.
Armed with such data, Tompkins, 42, has spearheaded the latest pro-fluoride campaign, raising $15,000 to pay for mass mailings and a blitz of radio spots and newspaper ads touting the health benefits of treating the city's water. That kind of political fund is unheard of in municipal elections here, where a few thousand dollars is a lot to spend on a mayoral campaign.
"I'm optimistic we'll prevail," Tompkins said.
Public health experts have credited fluoridation with reducing tooth decay since the chemical began to be added to drinking water shortly after World War II. Fluoride prevents cavities by countering acids and bacteria in the mouth that can break down tooth enamel.
But government advocacy of fluoridation has provoked a backlash, with opponents noting concerns about putting a toxic chemical in the water. The National Research Council found in 1993 that drinking fluoridated water increases a child's chances of getting stained or mottled teeth, but poses no risk of cancer, kidney failure or bone disease. That has not stopped the debate, however, as critics note that most of Europe refuses to fluoridate its water.
Unless Cumberland's referendum is halted, this will be the fourth time in nearly four decades that city voters have been faced with the fluoride issue. It was banned from the water supply in 1962, narrowly approved in a hotly disputed vote in 1988 and then banned again in 1990. Two-term Mayor George Wyckoff, who backed fluoridation, lost by 200 votes that year to an anti-fluoride challenger.
Outgoing Mayor Ed Athey opposes fluoridating the city water supply, calling it "mass medication." His opposition stems from his belief that he lost a 2 1/2 -year-old son nearly 40 years ago to a fatal reaction to a smallpox vaccination.
"My doctor favors fluoride, but I don't always believe in everything he tells me," the 64-year-old former tire company worker says.
Despite his doubts about fluoride's safety, Athey supported a referendum on the issue at the same time voters choose their mayor and City Council. By giving voters a direct say on fluoride, he hoped to spare candidates from being dragged into the debate.
The tactic seems to have worked. Most mayor and council hopefuls say they will be guided by the referendum's outcome or have refused to take a positionl.
"I think it's a divisive issue that doesn't earn our community anything," said Lee Fiedler, 58, the leading candidate for mayor. The former president of the now-defunct Kelly-Springfield Tire Co. said jobs and downtown redevelopment are far more pressing issues than fluoridating the water supply.
Yet Fiedler said that Cumberland's long-running political fight over fluoridation has hurt the city's business image. "The major disadvantage is not that we don't have it, it's that we can't quit fighting about it," he said.
Fiedler's long-shot opponent, Ronald E. Hampton Jr., opposes putting fluoride in the water, arguing that there are other ways that parents can give it to their children if they want to. However, he plays down the issue's significance.
In an encouraging sign for fluoridation supporters, the second-highest vote-getter among City Council candidates in last week's primary was an outspoken advocate for the treatment.
"It's not the kiss of death to say you're pro-fluoride," said Terry Rephann, 35, a research director at Allegany College.
In Frostburg, fluoride has eclipsed all other issues in the coming election, just two months after the City Council voted 3-2 to reject a dentists' petition to treat city water.
Three-term-mayor Bambacus has recruited other fluoridation supporters, including a dentist, to run for City Council in a bid to reverse that stance. They face a competing slate of fluoride opponents, including a 42-year-old truck mechanic and driver, John Bolden, who is challenging Bambacus.
Local fluoridation opponents draw support from dentist Ronald Barmoy, 67, who says people already get all the fluoride they need from toothpaste and processed foods prepared with fluoridated water.
"When so many people are against it, why jam it down their throats?" Barmoy asked.
But opposition to fluoridation seems muted. It was easy to find supporters of the referendum during lunch hour downtown last week.
"When I lived in New York City, I never had problems with my teeth," said Stacey Eutin, as she cradled her infant daughter Savannah in her lap. The Eutins' other daughter, Alexandra, 4, had just been to the dentist to fill her third cavity.
Rosenbaum acknowledged that the pro-fluoridation forces are better organized this year than in the past, but vowed to pursue legal action or start another petition drive for a counter-referendum if necessary.
"It's a long way from being in the water yet," she said.