BENNINGTON — If fluoride had been on trial in Brattleboro, it was in a court where innocence must be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Last November, Brattleboro voters rejected a proposal to fluoridate the town’s water system by a vote of 2,859 to 2,276. The vote, on election day, ended two months of intensely emotional debate much like the battle now being waged here in Bennington.
Like Bennington, the question of fluoridation was raised by a group of dentists and doctors along with a local representative of the state Department of Health.
The pro-fluoridation camp said fluoridating the water supply would improve public health by reducing tooth decay in young and old alike.
The anti-fluoridation camp said fluoridation is potentially, at least, introducing a toxic chemical that all citizens will be compelled to drink regardless of their own dental safeguards, and that it will do more medical harm than good.
Tom Marshall covered the debate around fluoridation as a reporter for the Brattleboro Reformer. In a recent interview, he said that attacks against fluoridation left an aftertaste the voters couldn’t ignore.
“What the opponents managed to do, they raised a question mark in people’s minds,” said Marshall.
In the beginning, Marshall said his sense was that the majority was not against fluoridation.
But between September and November, townspeople met in two public hearings attended by about 110 people total. The Reformer published a list of eight web sites provided by the Brattleboro Safe Water Action Team and the Brattleboro Committee for Improved Oral Health. And a binder filled with literature on both sides was placed on reserve at the local library.
Marshall said opponents of fluoridation presented information and statistics that people had not seen. Much of the information came from sources that have also worked with Bennington Citizens Against Fluoridated Water, sources like Dr. Paul Connett, an opponent of fluoridation, and professor of chemistry and toxicology at St. Lawrence University. Earlier this year, Connett spoke at a Bennington public hearing on fluoridation.
“They may not have been convinced,” said Marshall of the voters, “but it gave them pause.”
Judging by what he heard, voters reasoned that it would be wiser to err on the side of caution if there was any chance of fluoride harming people, especially children.
“The arguments I heard most frequently and to greatest effect was that fluoride was not intended to be consumed, it was intended to be applied topically,” Marshall said.
Opponents also argued that the government should not decide what is in their drinking water.
They questioned the link between drinking fluoride and improved dental health.
They questioned the purity of the fluoride that would be used. They maintained that fluoride builds up in the body, and leads to adverse health effects.
Marshall said proponents of fluoridation may actually have harmed their own cause by belittling the arguments against it. “There was a tendency to look at people who questioned fluoridation as cranks,” Marshall said.
Proponents questioned the validity of studies opposing fluoridation. They pointed to the amount and quality of studies supporting fluoridation. When all was said and done, Marshall said “the largest group of people just had a question in their minds.”
In retrospect, Marshall said the advice he would give Benningtonians is to try to keep a clear mind when considering the evidence. “Try not to let people play on your emotions,” said Marshall. “In the end it doesn’t advance the debate, it just inflames people.”