Common ground could be hard to find between the borough authority that voted 5-0 in May to discontinue adding fluoride to its water system and local residents and area dentists who disagree with the decision.
The tide turned Monday, at least for one person, in a public hearing held by Borough Council.
Impassioned arguments were made over the safety and costs of fluoride in the borough’s water system. Council President Frank Halderman, an authority member who has wanted a public hearing on the topic for months, said despite his vote to discontinue the practice he changed his mind.
“I wanted to keep (fluoride) from the beginning, but the guys wore me down on the cost and the safety,” Halderman said.
The reasons the authority voted to discontinue the practice of putting fluoride into the borough’s water system, he said, were safety concerns for borough employees putting it into the system and the cost of increasing the amount of fluoride into the system. Their decision was made after the state Department of Environmental Protection inspected Bellefonte’s water system facilities in March and found deficiencies.
Pete Peters, one of the employees who puts fluoride into the water system, asked for increased safety measures.
“Right now if one of the barrels would upset it’d go down the drain and you’d have about 150 pounds of hydrofluoric acid in Spring Creek, which would be a problem,” Peters said. “… Something needs to be done on the way we put it in.”
If the authority were to reverse its decision — it has to continue to put fluoride into the water system for at least a month after it sends out a second notice to residents — there is an elephant in the room.
The practice of adding fluoride to the water system would come at a cost, about $317,000 according to an Oct. 22 estimate from Nittany Engineering and Associates. The only way the practice can continue, borough Manager Ralph Stewart said, is if the authority builds a facility that includes things like an emergency deluge shower and storage dedicated solely for fluoride, which its Big Spring water system facility does not have.
Halderman said a facility could be built at a fraction of the cost, about $25,000, with a fiberglass building. After other costs, he roughly estimated such a project would be about 20 percent of the cost of the facility proposed by NEA.
One hurdle to Halderman’s idea, however, is that the facility would be housed in the historic district, which is regulated by the Bellefonte Historical Architecture Review Board.
Stewart kicked off the hearing and also covered other concerns, including ones over the safety of fluoride in the water system. He said the fluoride put into the system is a toxic acid that can carry and leach metals like lead and arsenic. Health risks, he said, include potential developmental issues in infants and children.
Stewart cited letters like one written by University of California biologist Richard Sauerheber in June 2014 to support his claims.
Those who oppose the authority’s decision, however, said risks of adding fluoride to the water system are scientifically unfounded.
Those sources, said Spring Township resident Deb Smith, include a 2013 letter signed by Harvard faculty that opines that fluoride in water systems is “an effective and safe public health measure for people of all ages.” She also noted the American Dental Association maintains that the practice is safe and prevents tooth decay.
One person who disagreed with Stewart was Councilwoman Gay Dunne.
“I would be remiss … if I did not speak out in favor of continued fluoridation,” she said. “The evidence, to me, and the benefit to our community seems very clear.”
Opposing views, Dunne said, do not have good evidence.
Area dentists like Frank Dankanich and Richard Miller also made cases for continuing the addition of fluoride into the water system. They have done the same at previous borough authority meetings.
Alicia Risner-Bauman, a dentist who is a member of the Health Advisory Board to Gov. Tom Wolf, also argued for continued fluoridation of the water system.
“Bellefonte water reports for the last four years show the levels of lead and arsenic in the water to be safe while we’ve been fluoridating,” Risner-Bauman said. “If the fluoride source you’ve been using is going to cause additional lead and arsenic I believe we would have already seen those levels in those water reports that are given to the public from your water authority.”
She also said the authority would have to facilitate safety measures for the chlorine the borough adds to its water system, much like the safety measures the borough would have to add for fluoride.
“That’s one of the things that whether you’re adding fluoride or not you have to have the proper safety measures in place for all chemicals, and chlorine has basically the same requirements,” Risner-Bauman said.
Stewart said the topic of safety measures for chlorine has not come up in the process of gathering information about building a facility fitted for putting fluoride into the water system.
The borough authority will meet 6 p.m. Tuesday at Bellefonte’s council chambers.