Depending on who spoke at a public hearing in Burlington City Hall on Thursday night, water fluoridation is either a safe and effective public health measure that has markedly reduced dental decay in the more than half-century of its use or it is an unsafe form of mandatory medication based on outdated science.
About 80 people crowded into Contois Auditorium to tell the Board of Health what they think about the issue. As the meeting — which began at 6:30 p.m. and was scheduled for two hours — continued toward 9 p.m., more than 30 people had moved to the table in front of the board to speak.
Each had three minutes to offer their views on a subject that again evoked deep, sometimes angry emotions. Those against water fluoridation outnumbered proponents by more than two to one, and comments for and against often were marked with prolonged applause. Despite the emotions, the presentations were generally polite.
Burlington has fluoridated its water since 1952 and the Board of Health is taking a close look at whether the practice should continue. Last week, in a two-hour hearing before a crowd of more than 100, the board listened to expert testimony for and against fluoridation.
The board will meet next week to decide on the recommendation it will make to the City Council on whether the city should continue to fluoridate its water, modify its practice, or end the practice.
A number of dentists attended Thursday night, including Peter Taylor, the executive director of the state dental society.
He asked other dentists and dental workers in the audience to stand to have their “support for community water fluoridation be recognized,” then told the board that contrary to what a fluoridation opponent had said at last week’s hearing, dental professionals “do not form their opinion on blind faith or solely on what they learned in dental school.”
They continue to read articles and attend classes, he said, and “form their professional opinions based on the preponderance of science. To date that science overwhelmingly supports the continuation of community water fluoridation.”
A number of fluoridation opponents said they objected to being “medicated,” as a number put it, without having given their permission.
Owen Mulligan, a Burlington massage therapist and the chairman of Burlington’s Green Party, urged the board to end water fluoridation.
“I believe ending fluoridation is right because exposing a whole population, without their consent, to a chemical whose safety is in question, is simply wrong,” he said
Paul Skrill, who described himself as a grandfather of five, drove from South Randolph to tell the board government recommendations to drink eight glasses of water a day were “like spit in the ocean” when compared to all the sources of water people are exposed to. “And all of this water is medicated with fluoride. We have been duped into believing that fluoride is good for our bodies,” he said. “In reality, we are the disposal units for the waste product fluoride,” which he said is created by “the aluminum industry.”
Nevin Zablotsky, a South Burlington periodontist, urged the board to recommend continuing water fluoridation until the federal Environmental Protection Agency completes a toxicological and clinical review of fluoride in 2006.
“The stakes are high,” he said. “Slow and exhaustive study is needed, not a knee-jerk reaction to fear.”
Board of Health Chairman Ian Galbraith said before the meeting that the five board members remain divided on the issue, with at least two in favor of ending water fluoridation, two in favor of continuing the practice and the fifth somewhere in the middle.
“People on the board are very concerned they are doing the right thing,” he said. “We take this extremely seriously.”
He noted that the board’s recommendation will not be conclusive.
“What we say is advisory to the City Council,” he said. “They can modify it or reject it, or people could make water fluoridation a ballot issue.”