After successfully pushing for a public referendum for next spring’s election ballots in Rockport, a group of both Gloucester and Cape Ann activists committed to putting an end to community-wide fluoridation in their communities’ water systems will get a turn at a public hearing tonight before the Gloucester City Council.
And their first goal will be to seek a voters’ referendum on whether the city should discontinue to keep fluoride in the city’s drinking water system — as it has been for years.
The catch is that the council does not have any real control over whether the city should block the use of fluoride in Gloucester’s water or not. That authority rests largely with the state Department of Public Health, and the city of Gloucester’s Board of Health.
Indeed, Chapter 111, Section 8C, of the state’s General Laws indicates that the only way the city could stop fluoridation is through having 10 percent of a community’s residents sign a petition demanding a vote — and that can only come about if the city’s Board of Health was seeking to up the amount of fluoride, which it is not. So Gloucester City Council President Paul McGeary says the council will listen to the concerns of those in the Cape Ann Fluoride Action Network citizens’ group, yet may not take any action beyond that.
That would be unfortunate. While the council may not be able to commit to a specific question tonight, there is no reason why councilors can’t open the door to putting a question regarding the future of community-wide fluoridation on Gloucester’s ballot as a non-binding referendum next fall — just as Rockport voters will face in May.
There are, to be fair, all sorts of philosophical issues in play over this issue. And not the least of those is whether any public health issue — and a program addressing it – should be left to a popular vote.
But while the city would not ask voters to approve whether to allow the administering of flu shots, for example, or some other preventive health measure, those who don’t want to get a shot simply don’t have to. In fluoridation, residents who use the city’s system for their drinking water have no choice but to ingest the fluoride that comes with it.
By many counts, community fluoridation is a good thing. It has been shown in various studies to be an effective tactic in fighting tooth decay — and the community-wide aspect of it means that those children and families who cannot afford higher dental costs, or to use fluoride as some sort of additive to their home water system, can get its benefits as essentially provided by the city.
That’s why nearly three dozen dentists from across Cape Ann, drawn together through the efforts of local orthodontist Dr. William Bebrin, who maintains an office in Gloucester, stood in a rare show of unity to back the continuation of community fluoridation through a letter to the Times.
One can also argue that those who do not want fluoride included in their water could buy filtering apparatus to remove it from their home systems. But Gloucester resident Karen Favazza Spencer and others within the Cape Ann Fluoride Action Network make the case that they should not be forced to accept fluoride as part of their oral health diet if they don’t want it — especially if they believe it’s potentially harmful.
The council will not resolve all of those issues tonight. But the question on the table should be whether Gloucester voters deserve a voice to answer those questions. And the answer is yes.
Just as in Rockport and now Gloucester, activists in Newburyport, Topsfield, Canbridge and several other communities are fighting to end community fluoridation. Georgetown, Merrimac and Rowley have never added fluoride to their water. And Amesbury and Methuen, among others, have opted out of community-wide fluoridation programs in recent years — with public referendums as the catalysts.
Maybe Gloucester’s council can’t change the city’s policy on fluoridation. And even a referendum would not be binding.
But residents should have the chance to have their say — and if there is an overwhelming call to change the current system, city officials can then determine how to carry out their wishes. That say should come through a referendum next fall.