BENNINGTON – The majority of voters turned out to say “no” to fluoridating the water Tuesday at Town Meeting.
Article 15, asking “Shall the Town of Bennington adjust the natural level of fluoride in the Bennington water system to a level recommended for preventing tooth decay (advisory only)?” was defeated with 1,117 voting “yes” and 1,539 voting “no.”
The topic was hotly debated in the Bennington area over the past several months and during various forums, culminating in the vote Tuesday where supporters and those against stood with signs outside the Bennington Fire Department.
Town Clerk Cassandra Barbeau said voter turnout was steady throughout the day.
The advisory vote came about after the Bennington Oral Health Coalition received the necessary number of signatures to put the question on the ballot. The coalition was founded in 2012 as one of several committees organized by the Vermont Office of Rural Development to deal with various problems in the town. After two years of working to find solutions to Bennington’s oral health problems, the group approached the select board with the recommendation that the select board — also the water board — fluoridate Bennington’s water.
“We kind of dismissed [fluoridation] out of hand,” said Sue Andrews, executive director of Bennington Interfaith Community Services, who has been working as part of the coalition for the past two years, “because it seemed like a much bigger undertaking, but the longer we worked on this, we realized, in terms of the biggest bang for the buck, if you put a few dollars into the front end of public health, you win big time in terms of improvements in public health. Better dental outcomes translates into economic advantages. If you don’t have cavities, you don’t have to spend money at the dentist. A huge problem in our society, and Vermont is a great example, is loss of work time because of dental pain. That’s an economic issue right there. You can’t go to work because you’re in so much agony, and if you don’t go to work your family doesn’t get fed. It’s a vicious cycle.”
The first time Bennington discussed the issue was in 1963, 11 years after Burlington became the first municipality in Vermont to fluoridate its water supply.
The outcry against fluoridation was immediate. At the Dec. 22 meeting of the Bennington Select Board, when the coalition was scheduled to make their initial presentation about fluoride, several members of the community turned out to oppose the idea, despite board chair Greg Van Houten’s requests that the debate be held until later meetings. Many of those citizens eventually formed the Bennington Citizens Against Fluoridated Water, which led the campaign to vote no on Article 15.
Over the next several months, the town saw two community panel discussions on the subject, one hosted by the coalition and the other hosted by the Citizens Against Fluoridated Water. Countless letters to the editor were submitted to the Bennington Banner, as well as public service announcements from both sides were aired on Catamount Access Television, and the debate raged on social media forums such as Facebook. The Southwestern Vermont Medical Center also became involved in the debate, after releasing a statement supporting the fluoridation effort.