BELLOWS FALLS — Bob Carton, an environmental scientist who has done work for the federal Environmental Protection Agency, stood in front of a small crowd at Town Hall, Wednesday, and said that a recent report on fluoride in water showed conclusively that the chemical poses serious health risks.
A few minutes later, Alida Lund of the Vermont Department of Health used the same report to show that adding fluoride to water was safe and when used properly is not dangerous.
Two public health experts with more than 60 years of experience between them assessed a 500-page report by the National Research Council and reached different conclusions.
Now it is up to the voters of Bellows Falls to figure it out.
Residents of the village will decide Monday at 7:30 p.m. at the annual meeting whether or not to continue adding fluoride to the municipal water supply.
A public information session, the third one held since the trustees took the issue up, was held Wednesday evening. Experts came from across the state and around New England to help the citizens of Bellows Falls understand the benefits and risks of adding fluoride to the water.
About 20 people came to the meeting, which was also shown live on community access television.
Since raising the issue almost a year ago, the trustees have tried to provide information and get the public involved. But most of the participants at the meetings have been fluoride activists and dentists from out of town and a handful of local residents.
Rose Fowler, a Bellows Falls resident who helped start the dental clinic in town, said, “This is a waste of time. We don’t have people here who vote.”
She said the people who most benefit from the fluoride have not come out to support the issue and are not likely to show up Monday.
And Mary Barber, another resident of the village, stood up after more than two hours of discussion and said, “Now I’m really confused.”
A panel of experts from both sides of the issue sat in front of the room Wednesday.
Along with Carton, the environmental scientist, Len Weldon, a dentist from Keene, N.H., and Michael Connett of the Fluoride Action Network told the crowd about the health risks of fluoride.
They also said any supposed health benefits are overstated or just plain wrong.
“It is a reckless form of treatment,” Connett said. “Putting it in everyone’s water takes away the right to choose. There are too many unanswered health questions.”
On the other side of the table, Lund, from the health department, and three dentists spoke about how fluoridating public water has been one of the most important public health decisions of the century.
Fluoride helps strengthen teeth, the advocates said. It benefits low-income families who may not have access to the best dental care and they said the very low cost of adding the fluoride to water saves money in dental care.
And they said when the level of fluoride is kept below one part per million there have been no conclusive studies that prove it is unsafe.
“There have been thousands and thousand of reports that support fluoridation,” said Dr. Dennis Pellegrino, a dentist from Walpole, N.H. “There is too much information that supports it and too little against.”
And Dr. Charles Bookwalter, a Burlington dentist, said he and his family drink fluoridated water.
“There are risks in everything, but the benefits far outweigh the risks,” he said.
Roger Riccio, a Bellows Falls resident and a village trustee, said he grew up without fluoridated water. He said he has few cavities while his brothers have lost all of their teeth.
“It has more to do with good oral care and genes,” Riccio said.
Luise Light, a trustee who has been leading the argument against fluoridation, put a loose leaf binder at the Rockingham library with information on fluoride.
A voter from Bellows Falls could spend the next few days reading every single article on the Internet on fluoride and probably not read them all. Nor would that voter be able to determine to conclusively which side is right.
The panel of so-called experts Wednesday could not agree.
The final decision will be made by whichever group gets the most number of voters out to the annual meeting Monday.