An extra 6 million people in New Jersey would get water treated with fluoride under a bill that cleared an Assembly committee yesterday.
The measure, approved by the Assembly Health Committee, was strongly pushed by medical professionals but opposed by environmentalists and water companies.
Committee chairman and bill sponsor Herb Conaway (D-Burlington) made it clear from the outset the bill would be approved by the panel, saying it was “appalling” that only Hawaii has lower percentage of people who have access to teeth-strengthening fluoride in their water.
“We need to do something to change that,” he said.
Nationwide, about 184 million people — nearly 70 percent — drink fluoridated water. In New Jersey, where municipalities are free to decide whether to mandate water fluoridation, 1.7 million people — only 22.6 percent — have fluoridated water, according to state and federal reports. They live in 78 towns, mostly in Mercer, Middlesex, Monmouth and Somerset counties.
Three officials for the New Jersey Dental Association urged the committee to support the bill, noting tooth decay is the most prevalent chronic disease among children.
“This will not only improve oral health,” said Arthur Meisel, the group’s executive director. “We’re not asking you to spend money. We’re coming to you to ask you to save money,” noting there would be fewer dental claims submitted to the state health benefits plan.
Environmental advocates unsuccessfully tried to persuade the committee it was rushing the bill (A3709) Conaway introduced Feb. 5. They wanted to delay action until they reviewed research about the impact of fluoride and other potentially dangerous additives on riverbeds, as well as overexposure in humans.
“The sponsors’ goal to reduce tooth decay is laudable but there are safer, cheaper ways to do it than mass medication,” said Sharon Finlayson, chairwoman of the New Jersey Environmental Federation.
Finlayson brought food items she said contain enough fluoride, like some baked potato chips, cereals and sweetened iced tea. “We already are getting fluoride from many sources,” she said.
Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, said he worried residents may be exposed to cheap “industrial-grade” fluoride, laced with arsenic, lead and mercury. “Our concern is to make sure it’s a pure form of fluoride,” he said.
Karen Alexander, president of the New Jersey Utilities Association, said the federal Drinking Water Act regulates fluoride as a “water contaminant” and could affect “more sensitive populations.”
Utility operators “should not have the responsibility for ensuring the appropriate dosage of fluoride, Alexander said.
Conaway, a physician, declined to postpone the vote. He said the state departments of health and environmental protection would set and enforce safety standards.
Noting the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has strongly endorsed adding fluoride to drinking water, he said: “I guess the CDC must be nuts and not know what they are doing.”
The bill was approved 10-0. Assemblyman Vincent Polistina (R-Atlantic) abstained, saying he wants to do more research. The measure moves to the full Assembly.
Ellen Gulbinesky of the Association Environmental Authorities, representing 110 waste water and solid waste authorities, said the recommended dose of fluoride is 1 part per million, and it is difficult to maintain that level.
“They make it sound like all they have to do is wheel in a tank of fluoride and add it, but there is a lot of science involved in it,” she said.
James Schulz, the dental association’s lobbyist, said communities are already passing that test.
“This is not new territory,” he said. It’s monitored on a regular basis in communities across the country, including 20 percent of the population in New Jersey.”
For a list of New Jersey communities already receiving fluoridated water, go to http://www.nj.gov/dep/watersupply/FlourideAS_9_3_03.pdf