Volunteers have launched a public education campaign advocating that fluoride be added to the municipal water supply.
Upper Valley Oral Health Coalition Coordinator Beth Kopp said the group’s nearly two dozen members — who work or live in Hartford — are handing out information packets, water bottles, window decals and buttons that detail their campaign “Happy Hartford Teeth.”
“The Centers for Disease Control calls it one of the 10 greatest public health advances of the 20th century,” Kopp said in an interview on Wednesday. “Getting fluoride in the water really gives all children drinking it an advantage.”
While the coalition is starting with an education campaign, Kopp said the ultimate goal is to convince either the Selectboard or voters to fluoridate the two water systems that serve town residents.
It would be a first for Hartford.
Jeanette Hutchins, a longtime nurse at the White River School, said she is part of the coalition’s drive to add fluoride to the water supply.
“It is something that is not only a positive for young children, but it helps offer lifelong protection and good dental health for all,” Hutchins, who has practiced nursing in Hartford schools for 24 years, said. “I have children coming in complaining of tooth aches, and sometimes they have no dental care at home. I can try and help them treat the symptoms but not the underlying cause.”
Regardless of a family’s income level, any child benefits when a simple glass of water contributes to oral health, Hutchins said.
“It doesn’t take the place of good dental care and doesn’t take the place of good oral hygiene, but I think it goes along way,” Hutchins said.
Fluoride naturally occurs in nearly all water sources and has been proven to prevent, treat and even reverse tooth decay, officials say.
There are a number of people, however, who believe fluoride has damaging effects on the human body.
“Fluoridating water supplies is an outdated, unnecessary, and dangerous relic from a 1950s public health culture that viewed mass distribution of chemicals much differently than scientists do today,” the Fluoride Action Network, an anti-fluoride advocacy group, asserts on its website.
In the Upper Valley, Hartford and Claremont don’t fluoridate municipal water supplies. Upper Valley towns that do fluoridate tap water include Hanover, Lebanon, Norwich, Randolph, Bradford, Vt., Newbury, Vt., and Springfield, Vt.
Residents in Bradford went through a months-long debate last year after the Water and Sewer Commission quietly voted to remove fluoride from the municipal water system. Residents ultimately voted at a special town meeting to restore the treatment.
Hartford Selectman Simon Dennis said he is opposed to fluoridating the town’s water supply. He cited a 2012 study that he said found a correlation between fluoridation and declining IQs.
“The study was focused on amounts of fluoridation between two and four times the amount that is ingested from the water system. However, it does suggest a correlation,” he said. “Some people say if it doesn’t get to the threshold of intensity then it must be totally safe. I don’t subscribe to it.
“If it goes in the water, for me, it’s a step in the wrong direction,” Dennis said.
There are two municipal water systems in Hartford. One serves the roughly 75 percent of residents who live in Wilder, Hartford, West Hartford and White River Junction. The other water system predominately serves Quechee residents.
Hartford Utilities Superintendent John Choate said it would cost about $30,000 per year to fluoridate both water systems. There would be an additional cost to pay for the necessary equipment.
“I see the argument has both positives and negatives,” Choate said. “But if the Selectboard chooses to fluoridate the water, we would fluoridate it.”
Hunter Rieseberg said that in his capacity as town manager, he has the authority to order the water be fluoridated, but that he wouldn’t implement such a change on his own.
The Selectboard has the authority to vote to add fluoride to the water, but board members do have the option to let voters decide the matter, Rieseberg said.
Selectman F. X. Flinn said he “absolutely” would vote in favor of adding fluoride. Flinn, who grew up on Long Island, N.Y., said he noticed a significant reduction in tooth problems when water there was first fluoridated during his childhood.
“All of the science supports it very strongly,” Flinn said.
Rebecca Courtemanche, a dental assistant at Hanover-based Summer Court Dental, said making sure children get enough fluoride at a young age is vital to protecting their teeth. By the time a child who hasn’t had oral care reaches young adulthood, oral health problems become harder to correct, she said. And that’s why she joined the Happy Hartford Teeth campaign.
“Promoting healthy teeth at a young age will help an individual stay healthier longer,” Courtemanche said.
Hutchins, the longtime school nurse, said state-funded fluoride rinse programs that were brought into the Hartford schools have been discontinued. She said she hopes the town will vote in favor of fluoride.
“I think we would begin to see changes within a few years,” Hutchins said. “It won’t be immediate, but I’m excited about the prospect that it could be available to all children and town residents.”