Richard Wainwright recalls getting the order to fluoridate Brockton’s drinking water from the city’s Board of Health when he was mayor more than 40 years ago.
The public health measure, approved in 1972, survived a last-minute derailment attempt by an activist, which failed when he could not muster the signatures of 10 percent of Brockton’s registered voters necessary to force a ballot question.
And so, based on a state law passed just a few years earlier, Brockton appeared to have adopted fluoridation, a now-widespread drinking water treatment championed by health advocates as a simple way to improve dental health.
But, more than four decades later, the city’s drinking water has yet to be treated with fluoride.
“It was a big deal and then it just sort of faded away,” said Wainwright, who had planned to implement the water treatment process during a second mayoral term that never materialized. “If there’s not somebody agitating, then nobody does anything.”
That could soon change, as the Board of Health is scheduled to take up the issue at its meeting next month, having been lobbied by a group of doctors, educators and other community leaders who say fluoridation would be especially helpful in a city with relatively youthful and low-income population.
“It’s a good preventative measure,” said Linda Gabruk, chief operating officer of the Brockton Neighborhood Health Center, which, along with other organizations such as the Boys & Girls Club of Brockton and the Cape Verdean Association of Brockton, has written in support of fluoridating Brockton’s water supply.
“Children growing up would have fluoridation access no matter what they’re doing, whether they are brushing their teeth or drinking the water,” Gabruk said. “There is more significant need (in Brockton) and less access to dental insurance. If you have a population that can afford to go to the dentist, you have less need.”
Fluoride is a natural compound found in rocks and soil. It can help prevent tooth decay when introduced through water or topically, such as through toothpaste. The chemical has been declared safe by “countless studies,” according to the Massachusetts Dental Society.
Yet fluoridation of drinking water has long been a contentious issue, drawing attacks from critics who say it is the government medicating its populations based on faulty science or pressure from chemical companies.
Over the years, advocates have generally succeeded.
In 1968, Massachusetts adopted a law giving local boards of health control of fluoridation. Today more than 60 percent of the state’s population, about 4 million residents, live in places where there is fluoridated public drinking water, according to the most recent state Department of Public Health statistics.
Nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 75 percent of the population is served by drinking water maintained at “optimum” fluoride levels.
Brockton’s drinking water system currently has about 0.3 milligrams of fluoride per liter of water, from naturally occurring fluoride, according to Louis Tartaglia, head of the city’s health department. The federal government’s recommended levels for “community water systems” is 0.7 milligrams per liter
Tartaglia said the board cancelled its meeting scheduled for next week so that it can gather more information about the topic. It may then decide in February or March how to proceed, he said.
Treating Brockton’s water with fluoride could cost $100,000 per year, plus start-up equipment costs, Tartaglia said. That price may be too steep, considering the infrastructure needs of the water and sewer system, said Chief Financial Officer John Condon.
Officials in Whitman and Hanson, which receive drinking water from Brockton’s system, said Tuesday that fluoridation is not before their boards of health.
State law requires municipalities to independently treat their jurisdictions if fluoridation has not been adopted by other communities using the same source of water.