Hartford — A push by a group of Upper Valley public health advocates to fluoridate Hartford’s municipal water supply isn’t gaining much traction among town officials.
The Selectboard unofficially decided Tuesday night not to slate time at a future meeting for a formal presentation from members of the Upper Valley Oral Health Coalition, which earlier this year launched a “Happy Hartford Teeth” campaign to encourage fluoridation of the town’s municipal water supply. The system serves roughly 90 percent of Hartford’s 10,000 residents, according to John Choate, utilities superintendent at the Department of Public Works.
Plainfield resident Beth Kopp, coordinator of the coalition, recently brought the idea to newly elected Selectboard members Matt Bucy and Sandra Mariotti, and Mariotti on Tuesday asked her colleagues about allotting time at a future meeting for the campaign to speak about fluoridation.
Members of the board indicated they were wary of formal consideration, given the controversy surrounding fluoride.
“I think we would have our hands full if we delve into this without giving some serious thought about what we are getting into,” Selectboard Co-chairman Ken Parker said Tuesday night during a 15-minute scheduling discussion.
Selectman Simon Dennis, who has come out against fluoridation, saying studies show fluoride can have damaging effects on the human body, said that he felt badly the way the fluoride discussion unfolded in Hartford earlier this year, asserting it was fueled by a combination of “the money and the impulse coming from outside the community.
“Also the idea of legislating forcing someone to take a medication that they may not want to… The combination of (all of) that makes it pretty unsettling to the citizens,” Dennis said.
Selectman Dick Grassi also expressed reservations with water fluoridation.
“I know all of my friends don’t support it,” Grassi, a former selectman who was reelected to the board in March, said. “The big thing is forcing someone to put something in their mouths that is controversial.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has rated fluoridation as one of the greatest public health achievements of the 20th century, saying it is a safe and cost-effective way to address tooth decay among children. But opponents say water fluoridation is not only unnecessary, but can be harmful to infants and elderly residents with compromised health. They say overexposure to fluoride can lead to such chronic problems as brain damage and an increased risk of cancer.
At the end of the discussion Tuesday night, Selectboard Co-chairman Alex DeFelice said, “It sounds like the majority of the board is not interested in entertaining a decision at this point on fluoride.”
DeFelice, who remains neutral on whether fluoridating water supplies is worthwhile, said in a follow-up interview on Thursday that the board wasn’t ready to take up the topic because of its controversial nature, and the amount of time it will tie up at future meetings.
“I think the other thing is that the board thinks it is so controversial that it is not anything that we are ready to do,” DeFelice said.
DeFelice said members of the “Happy Hartford Teeth” campaign can speak briefly during the citizens comment portion of a future meeting — much like anyone can.
Kopp on Thursday said she will likely touch base with the Selectboard prior to having a group speak during the citizens comment portion of a meeting, if at all.
“I hope to find out what the board thinks will make them more comfortable to have a discussion,” Kopp said, noting “community gatherings” could be held to inform the public. She said she would regroup with the team of volunteers — two being Jeanette Hutchins, a longtime nurse at the White River School, and Steve Chapman, medical director of Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s Boyle Community Pediatrics Program — and figure out a way forward
She said the push to fluoridate Hartford’s water system will continue.
“As long as we keep hearing from the community that it is what they want, that is what we want to do,” Kopp said. “We continue to have great conversations with community members who believe in it.”
Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg said previously that the board has the authority to vote to add fluoride to the water, or let the voters decide.
Though he didn’t express an opinion on the matter, Parker said “the main issue is whether a municipality should force residents to fluoridate their water or if it should be left up to the choice of the individuals.
“(Kopp) makes a compelling argument. However, there are compelling arguments that can be made on both sides of this,” Parker said. “The fundamental thing it comes down to is what do you want your community to do in terms of putting something into your mouth or your kids’ mouth that you may not want them to.”