As a Cambria County community weighs removing fluoride from its drinking water, dentistry experts and their opponents continue to advocate for different outcomes.
Dentists, orthodontists and other health-minded people have said that fluoride is instrumental in fighting tooth decay.
All the while, however, protesters of fluoride — a mineral used to fight tooth decay — have claimed it could do more harm than good, even causing other ailments.
“I have been an opponent of fluoride,” former Tyrone Borough Mayor Bill Fink said. “And I remain an opponent of fluoride.”
Talks about fluoride in recent weeks stem largely from a decision made by the Greater Johnstown Water Authority to remove the mineral from its drinking supply, as well as a subsequent vote made by the Ebensburg Municipal Authority to do the same.
The Ebensburg decision may later be rescinded, Ebensburg Borough Manager Dan Penatzer said.
“It’s kind of an open question yet,” Penatzer said.
In July, Greater Johnstown Water Authority leaders chose to cease the addition of fluoride into their supply.
That decision was the result of several factors, including an aging feed system, which is used to add the mineral to water, authority General Manager Michael Kerr said.
To replace the aging system, the authority would have to spend several hundred thousand dollars — an expense that was deemed unnecessary.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with delivering safe, potable drinking water,” he said, referring to fluoride.
Before a decision was made, however, authority leaders spoke with customers through mail and by phone and hosted a public meeting to get feedback.
“We had over two times as many people contact the authority in favor of removing the fluoride,” Kerr said, adding that customers’ wishes factored greatly into the decision.
Currently, fluoride is still being added to Johnstown’s water, but notices of the change will soon be sent to customers, and the mineral likely will be removed by about the beginning of next year. The pending change to Johnstown’s water directly contributed to a subsequent vote — made last month by members of a board that governs the Ebensburg authority — to also remove fluoride from their supply, Penatzer said.
“It’s not a cost factor at all,” Penatzer said, revealing the annual price of fluoride is minimal.
The borough has its own water supply and treatment plant, but it also purchases water from the Johnstown authority.
Out of the nearly 800,000 gallons used each day in the borough, a minimum of 60,000 are purchased from Johnstown, Penatzer said.
“Now, we got some water that has fluoride in it and some that doesn’t have fluoride,” he said.
That disparity was a driving factor that prompted the agreed-upon change, Penatzer said.
While the elimination of fluoride in Ebensburg’s water was approved, it has not yet been removed.
Penatzer said a permit amendment must first be submitted to the state Department of Environmental Protection before changes can be made. That permit has not yet been submitted, he said.
Before action is taken, the Ebensburg authority will revisit its original decision at a public meeting at 4 p.m. Nov. 20.
The revisit is partially the result of a discussion at an Ebensburg Borough Council meeting late last month, when local leaders questioned the original decision.
“Council balked a little bit at it, although it’s not their decision,” Penatzer said of the original vote for removal. “The council members reported that they were receiving calls that were primarily against removing (fluoride).”
Fighting tooth decay
Those residents are not alone in advocating for continued fluoride use.
A number of area dental professionals claim the mineral plays a large role in preventing tooth decay, especially in children.
Among them is Ebensburg dentist Dr. Eric Hicks, who said he’s had a firsthand look at fluoride’s benefits while working in two school districts. One of those districts, he said, was in a geographic area where fluoride was added to water. In the other district, water was fluoride-free.
“The difference when I did the exams was unbelievable,” Hicks said, noting that the children who drank fluoridated water had fewer cavities and related problems.
Hicks admitted that other factors, such as socioeconomic class, also play may play a role in children’s dental health.
When people eat sugary foods, bacteria in their mouths breakdown the sugars into acid, which then destroys tooth enamel, Tyrone-area orthodontist Dr. Christopher Pine said.
Fluoride, Pine said, helps strengthen tooth enamel and can be used to repair some minor deterioration.
“Community fluoridation is the most cost-effective way to deliver fluoride to people of all ages and backgrounds,” Pine said, speaking against plans to remove the mineral from public water.
That is a position backed by the Pennsylvania Dental Association, said Rob Pugliese, the association’s communications director.
“Numerous studies have shown that children who drink fluoridated water since birth have 20 to 40 percent less tooth decay than those children who drink from non-fluoridated water supplies,” Pugliese said in a statement.
“However, fluoridation contributes much more to overall health than simply reducing tooth decay. It prevents pain from infection, suffering and loss of teeth and saves costs associated with dental treatment,” he continued.
No fluoride in Altoona
Community members also have spoken in favor of fluoridated water, urging community leaders to continue the practice.
“Sorry for the children of Cambria County and the greater tooth decay they will suffer because of this ill-informed, anti-science decision,” a commenter posted on a Tribune-Democrat story about the removal of fluoride from the Johnstown system.
In 2006, a group — The Altoona Hospital Partnership for a Healthy Community — was so passionate about adding fluoride to water that it petitioned the Altoona Water Authority to take up the practice.
More than 10 years later, that wish still has not been fulfilled. Others, such as Mirror commentator James Reeves, have offered opposite opinions.
“Current science shows that ingesting fluoride is ineffective at reducing tooth decay, harmful to health and a waste of money,” Reeves wrote in response to the news about a proposed Ebensburg change.
Similar beliefs were expressed by Fink in 2013, when Tyrone Borough Council members voted to cease adding fluoride to public water.
That vote was later rescinded, current Tyrone Mayor William Latchford said, explaining board members were given bad information prior to their initial vote. By the time the initial decision was rescinded, most council members came to see fluoride as an asset, Latchford said.
“It really seems like there are way more benefits than any issues,” he said. “We ended up not going with removing the fluoride.”
Still, Fink maintains his antifluoride beliefs and continues to lambaste the addition of the mineral to public water.
“I feel that putting fluoride in the water … is mass-medicating the public,” Fink said Wednesday. “I’m certainly not a doctor, and I’m certainly not in favor of mass-medicating the public.”
Fink also argues that consuming too much fluoride can have negative health effects.
“We have fluoride in so many things,” Fink said, naming Teflon pans, toothpastes and water among numerous other products. “You don’t know how much you’re getting.”
There may be some merit to that claim, as Hicks cautioned against fluorosis, a discoloration of teeth caused by the consumption of excessive amounts of fluoride.
However, Hicks said neither drinking fluoridated water nor brushing teeth with fluoridated toothpaste would be enough to cause fluorosis.
“It has to be in combination,” he said.
Hicks made sure to point out that he is in favor of fluoride in water but cautioned parents to read labels on toothpastes and mouthwashes. Parents also should watch their children apply toothpastes to brushes to ensure the proper amount is used, he said.
“Too much fluoride leaves white marks on the teeth,” he said.
*Original article online at http://www.altoonamirror.com/news/local-news/2017/11/sides-sink-teeth-into-fluoride-debate/