NEW BEDFORD — Fluoride will flow into the city’s water supply first thing tomorrow morning, the final step in a debate that has taken more than three years to resolve.
It marks the first time the city’s water will have fluoride since 1980, when fluoride was added for a few short months.
Ronald Labelle, superintendent of the Department of Public Infrastructure, said the equipment at the Quittacas Water Treatment Plant in Freetown has been operational for months and a bulk delivery of fluoride arrived at the treatment plant several weeks ago.
"The North End will get it first, because we have a line that feeds directly to that section of the city," Mr. Labelle said. "People there will have fluoride in their water in 24 hours." The rest of the city will take longer, he said, because the water must flow through a 75 million gallon reservoir in Dartmouth before reaching water customers.
He estimated that fluoridated water will reach every tap in the system in six to seven days.
The concentration will be one part fluoride for every million parts water, he said. That is the amount that health professionals recommend as having the maximum benefit to oral health.
New Bedford joins a long list of cities across the state and the country that add fluoride to their water, including Fall River, Brockton, Boston and Springfield.
Fluoride became a reality when New Bedford voters, by a margin of 1,200 votes (a 53 percent to 47 percent majority) approved a binding referendum in November. The New Bedford Board of Health had approved fluoridation in 2004, but public opinion and a change in mayoral administrations slowed the move to add fluoride to the water. Mayor Scott W. Lang opposed fluoride and public hearings on the matter were decidedly anti-fluoridation.
Proponents of fluoridation, mostly dentists and doctors, declared the state of the teeth of city children an "oral health crisis" and spent $17,000 on advertisements and brochures in the two weeks leading up to the November vote. They said that a small amount of fluoride would strengthen children’s teeth from the inside out.
Opponents, who objected to fluoride because of possible health effects and "mass medication" through the public water supply, spoke loudly at public hearings but were virtually invisible in the days leading up to ballot question.
The fluoride will flow despite the objections of public officials in Acushnet. The town is New Bedford’s largest water customer outside the city, consuming about five percent of the system’s total output. (Acushnet voters were never asked their opinion of fluoridation, which one of the town’s selectmen, David Wojnar, called "fluoridation without representation.")
At a meeting last week, the Acushnet Board of Health urged Mayor Lang to reconsider allowing the fluoride to flow but Mayor Lang pointed to the binding vote in New Bedford as the people’s mandate for fluoride.
Bringing fluoride into the water supply proved to be a tough fight for the city’s Board of Health and its former director, Robert F. Davis, who said fluoridation is one of the primary reasons Mayor Lang moved to have him fired.
One of fluoridation’s biggest supporters, Bruce Morell, executive director of People Acting in Community Endeavors, predicted last year that the oral health of the city’s children will improve "dramatically in the first year."
Opponents and skeptics have begun looking into fluoride filters and other alternatives, such as bottled water.
Some health warnings are being issued by both New Bedford and Acushnet regarding fluoridation.
Infants under six months old should not drink fluoridated water and parents should mix formula with water that does not contain fluoride. Children under 5 can benefit from fluoride but at doses lower than contained in the public water supply. Both the city’s and the town’s health departments recommend that parents consult their pediatrician or family doctor for guidance.