The Bennington Oral Health Coalition made their scheduled presentation before the Select Board Monday on the benefits of fluoridating the drinking water, and advocates for and against the measure spoke out in public comments.
Initially, board chairman Greg Van Houten asked members of the public to refrain from commenting on the fluoride issue, as the Coalition had not yet made their presentation, and noted that a public hearing on the matter in the future would be the place to have that discussion. When Van Houten said that no comments would be taken immediately after the presentation either, anti-fluoride activists within the audience insisted on their right to use the public comments portion of the meeting to voice their concerns, and Van Houten acquiesced.
When pro-fluoride activists stood to respond to the anti-fluoride comments, Van Houten again reminded the audience that the meeting was not the time for debate. The pro-fluoride citizens, however, also called upon their rights as residents of Bennington to speak. This led to over an hour of back-and-forth comments, prepared and otherwise, from the floor.
Anti-fluoride comments focused on the potential negative effects of fluoride, noting that many organizations referred to fluoride as a toxin. One community member claimed that all three of her children who took fluoride vitamins as infants had had severe problems with their teeth, while others pointed to research that claimed fluoride caused numerous diseases, such as cancer and bone decay. The pro-fluoride comments focused on questioning the science behind the ideas that fluoride was harmful, and championing the public health benefits and the money that could be saved on dental care if the system was implemented.
“I have seen firsthand what it is like to see an adult cry because they need dental work done that they can’t afford,” said resident Mary Lou Chicote. A young man also asked people on both sides to make sure that the scientific studies they were citing were peer reviewed, and to keep in mind, in the words of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, “The good thing about science, is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”
When the public comments portion of the meeting was through, Charlie Gingo of the Bennington Oral Health Coalition began the group’s presentation by giving the background of their group, and introduced a series of speakers, all area residents wearing “Life is Better with Teeth” stickers, who would discuss the potential benefits of fluoridation, including Chicote, Dr. Robert Cauley, Carol Conroy, chief nursing officer at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, and Sue Andrews, director of Bennington Interfaith Community Services.
Cauley, a native of Bennington who practiced dentistry in Boston for several years before returning to Bennington to practice, said that oral health was a major problem in Bennington compared to other places he has lived. “I see kids on their way to dentures here,” he said, “that I don’t see anywhere else.”
One point the group stressed was that the recommended amount of fluoride in the water is between 0.7 and 1.2 parts per million. In order to have any adverse effects on the human body, according to the American Dental Association, fluoride concentration must be above 10 ppm. In comparison, toothpaste is over 2,000 ppm fluoride.
After the presentation, Van Houten opened up a brief discussion of the board. “Clearly there are a lot of issues here,” he said, noting that there was no doubt that Bennington had an oral health problem. He asked the anti-fluoride members of the audience to consider alternatives to fluoridation that could help solve that problem. “If we’re not going to add fluoride,” he said, “What are we going to do?” He also asked everyone to do their own research on the topic before public hearings on the issue, so that the discussion could be as informed as possible. “If you’re looking for information on ihatefluoride.org or ilovefluoride.org, keep [searching for better sources],” he said.
The coalition has already begun circulating a petition to place an advisory question on the ballot in March. The final decision will be up to the Select Board, which also serves as the Water Board, but Van Houten stated at the meeting that they would not make that decision without a positive vote from the town.
“This is a community decision,” he said.