BENNINGTON – After nearly approving the measure on its own, the Select Board has called a public hearing to gauge reaction to a plan to fluoridate the town’s water supply.
A group of local dentists and nurses led by Dr. Michael Brady urged the board Tuesday to support fluoridation, calling it one of the 20th century’s greatest public health achievements.
Brady presented the board with a petition signed by more than 300 people in favor of the measure, saying it would reduce tooth decay and promote the oral health of all Bennington residents, but especially the young and the old.
Although the town considered adding fluoride to its water twice in the past 25 years, “the conversation was never really finished in either instance,” Brady said Wednesday.
“The time is right to finish the conversation now,” he said.
Brady was so persuasive that Select Board member Patrick Kinney moved that the board vote for the proposal Tuesday night. But upon reflection, the motion was amended with Brady’s support in favor of holding a public hearing on March 27.
“We backed off on our enthusiasm,” Chairwoman Lodie Colvin said. “It’s too important an issue. We need to give the community a chance to think about it. … But the consensus last night was absolutely, this was the way to go.”
Fluoridation is “the missing piece” in a concerted effort by the local hospital and school system to improve access to dental care, according to Brady.
A Tooth Tutor program has put dental hygienists in each grade school, where they survey the needs of students and make referrals, if necessary. Brady has also helped establish a dental clinic at Molly Stark Elementary School, where he has treated 400 Medicaid-eligible children in just over a year.
And through the Bright Smiles program, Southwestern Vermont Health Care has equipped and subsidized an operating room that allows local dentists to care for the town’s youngest and neediest patients.
“Fluoride would be a major help in limiting the damage and the number of severe cases we see up there,” Brady said.
There are 44 communities in Vermont that fluoridate their public water supplies, with Bennington and Brattleboro the two notable exceptions, according to Brady. In a non-binding referendum, Brattleboro residents overwhelming rejected a bid last November to add fluoride to the town’s water. The vote was 2,859-2,276.
Colvin said the Select Board was eager to hear from its constituents at the March public hearing. But she said she hoped a referendum would not be necessary.
“If there isn’t a huge outcry, why wouldn’t the Select Board feel comfortable making the decision? I would be surprised in this instance if it really needed to go to a larger vote,” she said.
While the majority of the Select Board is leaning toward fluoridation, board member Howard Sinnott said he was not “totally convinced” that it would be appropriate.
Sinnott said he had received a letter from a constituent who complained of growing sick after drinking fluoridated water. And he noted that in excessive doses, fluoride can cause teeth to turn brown and pitted.
Other critics argue that fluoride is a cumulative poison. They link its consumption to increased hip fractures and skeletal problems. Bone cancer, still births and Down’s syndrome may also be linked to fluoridation, they say.
But Brady disputed that.
“There has never been a single valid, peer-reviewed laboratory, clinical or epidemiological study that showed fluoride at optimal levels can cause any of these problems,” he said in a prepared statement to the board. “Based on the findings from hundreds of studies, the U.S. Public Health Service as well as numerous other scientific and health organizations support fluoride as a wonder nutrient and fluoridation as a safe, effective equitable means of promoting dental health for people of all ages.”
If the board agreed to add fluoride to the public water supply, the state would pay for the necessary equipment and the first year’s supply of chemicals, saving the town between $16,500 and $19,000. After that, the town would have to buy its own sodium fluoride at a cost of $7,500 to $9,500 per year, according to Brady.
That would be money well spent, according to Colvin, a former elementary school teacher.
“Having worked in the school system for 30 years, I saw so many of these 5- and 6-year-olds whose mouths hurt so much it was simply hard to learn,” Colvin said. “I’m a firm believer in helping families this way. To me, it’s very exciting and I’m optimistic we’re at a point where as a community we can understand the benefits of it.”