The Burlington Board of Health voted 3-2 Wednesday night to recommend to the City Council that Burlington continue fluoridating its drinking water but consider reducing the amount of fluoride used.
The decision came after two anti-fluoridation motions failed by the same 3-2 margin.
Board members Alan Sousie and Jay Vos, who argued against fluoridation, wanted the board to recommend that the council place a fluoridation question on the next city ballot as a referendum.
“We have a responsibility to urge the citizens of Burlington to study it as much as we have,” Sousie said.
When that motion failed, he offered another that would have recommended an end to water fluoridation. That motion also was defeated, with board Chairman Ian Galbraith, Debra Clemmer and Mary Hart voting no.
Sousie, Clemmer and Hart are nurses. Galbraith formerly worked as a laboratory technician. Vos is a professional pet sitter.
Galbraith’s centrist proposal — to continue but consider reducing the amount of fluoride — was finally adopted. Clemmer and Hart wanted to continue the city’s 53-year practice of water fluoridation without change. Galbraith, while agreeing with them that fluoridation is “basically safe” and has a “positive effect on dental health,” said he had questions from his reading of scientific literature about the amount of fluoride individuals receive from numerous sources, including city water.
“My concern,” he said, “is that people are getting exposed to more than they need.” The exposure, he said, might even reach “dangerous levels.”
Burlington adds from 1 to 1.6 parts per million of silicofluorides to the water. Galbraith said some authorities now recommend 0.07 to 1.2 parts per million. The City Council’s first chance to discuss the board’s recommendation will be its July 11 meeting.
Wednesday’s decision followed several public meetings on the subject.
Earlier this month the board staged a two-hour debate between officials from the state’s Department of Health and opponents of water fluoridation. More than 100 residents crowded Contois Auditorium to listen. State officials, led by Steve Arthur of the Department of Health’s oral health services office, strongly supported water fluoridation, calling it a “safe and effective” public health measure that has greatly reduced tooth decay in Burlington and other cities with fluoridated water.
Opponents of fluoridation argued that the toxicity of fluorides is largely untested and rests on faulty research. Some pointed to research performed at Harvard University for a 2001 doctoral thesis that alleged a link between water fluoridation and higher bone cancer rates in young boys.
The debate was followed last week by a public forum on water fluoridation that drew a crowd of 80. Several dentists told the board that fluoridating water supplies was the cheapest and most democratic way of ensuring that everyone, including poorer people with less access to dentists, could benefit from its anti-decay properties.
Many opponents argued that government shouldn’t have the right to impose mandatory medication on individuals who had never given their informed consent to the treatment.
Only 15 people attended the Wednesday meeting. Among them was periodontist Brian Shuman. After the vote, he said the board had a “very difficult decision” to reach. “But,” he said, “I think they protected a lot of children.”
Michael Connett, director of the anti-fluoridation Fluoride Action Network, said he was encouraged that two of the board members had become worried about fluoridation after studying the issue, and he called the final board recommendation “a step in the right direction.”
“We’re certainly happy with the outcome,” said Arthur, “but we’re under no illusion that this discussion is over. We’ll continue to provide the best information we can as to the safety and efficacy of fluoridation.”