“This is not going to be an easy decision, but we need to look at both sides of the story,” Meadville Area Water Authority Chairman Tim Groves said following the May 2013 meeting that featured both supporters and opponents of fluoride making their cases to the board.
More than three years later, both sides of the debate are still waiting to have their stories heard.
When they eventually do have a chance, the arguments they present will likely resemble the ones they presented in 2013. In the 70 years since community water fluoridation began in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the facts of the debate have remained largely the same.
What has changed is that while Grand Rapids was alone in 1945; today, fluoridation of water has been declared one of the “Ten Great Public Health Achievements in the 20th Century” by the Centers for Disease Control. As of 2012, about three of every four people using public water were drinking water with fluoride levels high enough to prevent tooth decay, according to the CDC.
The debate over whether to put fluoride in Meadville’s water has to some extent already been decided by forces greater than any municipal authority. As MAWA board member and dentist Dennis Finton pointed out at the July meeting, the water that MAWA supplies contains a low level of naturally occurring fluoride. For the prevention of tooth decay, the CDC recommends fluoride levels of 0.7 parts per million. Meadville’s water already contains 0.2 parts per million on average, according to MAWA’s 2015 Annual Water Quality Report, which is available on the MAWA website.
At the same time, however, despite widespread agreement in the medical community and the natural occurrence of fluoride in water sources, fluoridation has been controversial in some circles since it started. Fluoridating public water, some have argued, makes it difficult for those who oppose fluoridation to “opt out.”
On the pro-fluoridation side of the debate in Meadville, the Community Initiative for Improved Dental Health, including representatives of the dental community, pediatric physicians, Meadville Medical Center, Allegheny College and Crawford Central School District, was led by Dr. Denise Johnson, chief medical officer at Meadville Medical Center.
Johnson led a presentation touting the benefits of fluoridation, covering some of the highlights in the 111-page report the CIIDH submitted to the board.
Following the presentation, four community members expressed a wide range of concerns in opposition to fluoridation. Since then, the anti-fluoride movement in Meadville has coalesced around Clean Water Meadville, an organization led by local chiropractor Chris Knapp.
Following the discussion at that MAWA meeting three years ago, Ted Watts, the authority’s attorney, suggested that a monthly meeting was not an appropriate forum for such a debate. The authority should set a specific time for such discussion to take place, along with rules regarding the format of the discussion, Watts said.
A month later, MAWA postponed any public debate on the fluoride issue until completing its two major projects, replacing the clearwell and the Highland Reservoir.
More than three years later, MAWA still has not held the expected public discussion of fluoridation, nor has any framework for such a discussion been announced. The Highland Avenue water tanks were put into service during the summer of 2015 and the clearwell project was completed shortly after that, according to Yvonne Shaffer, MAWA business manager.
While no final format has been announced, MAWA has discussed possibilities for the fluoride debate. Discussions about format and logistics have taken place in the monthly operations committee meetings. At the October operations committee meeting, members met with Paul Vojtek of Erie Water Works, who explained how EWW had handled similar discussions.
MAWA operations committee meetings are not open to the public.
Knapp recently voiced concerns about transparency at MAWA in a letter to City Council in October. He then appeared before council to ask for its assistance and influence in ensuring a fair decision-making process. Knapp said his request to address the MAWA board had been denied because fluoride was not on the agenda of its public meetings. Public comment at MAWA meetings is restricted to topics that are on the agenda.
In July, then-MAWA Project Manager Joe Bateman said he was working on recommendations for the board regarding the fluoride debate.
“I’m cognizant of the fact that we want to give everyone the opportunity to speak,” he said at the time. “We’re just trying to figure out how to do that.”
Bateman has since been replaced as project manager at MAWA by Heath Loven in September. Loven is the fifth person to serve as MAWA’s project manager since 2015.
At MAWA’s most recent board meeting on Nov. 16, the topic of fluoride was not addressed. Afterward, Groves said there was “not much to report” on the subject. Discussions about how to hold the fluoride discussions are underway, and various options are being considered, according to Groves.