Eliminating fluoride from Gloucester’s drinking water is the aim, and getting the City Council to support the measure is the game, according to those who are against having the substance in the city’s drinking supply.
The push for removing Gloucester from the list of those cities and towns that provide communitywide fluoridation of the public drinking water system — and a Tuesday night City Council hearing — come after Rockport was granted a special act by the Legislature to allow for a ballot question on fluoridation there. That step, in turn, followed a Town Meeting vote authorizing the town’s Board of Selectmen to request the act.
Gloucester City Council President Paul McGeary said Friday that, while the city’s legislative body must hold Tuesday night’s public hearing — slated as part of the council’s regular meeting, which starts at 7 p.m. in City Hall — because the city received the required number of signatures on the petition forcing them to do so, he said state law does not provide an avenue for removing fluoride.
However, Michael Foley, a member of the Cape Ann Fluoride Action Network, said Friday that, since the law is not clear about fluoride removal, network members and fluoride-removal sympathizers hope to blaze their own trail toward their common goal.
“We’re hoping that they’ll stop it immediately,” Foley said.
He added that the action network, which is also leading the push to remove fluoride from the drinking water in Rockport, will make a presentation, including information and studies that members have found to support their point of view. After that, Foley said they hope the council will take a vote on whether or not to put the fluoridation question on the ballot during the next city elections — slated for the fall of 2015.
“I think that the City Council would take an internal vote, but I’m not sure of that process,” he said.
State law, however, does not provide clear provisions for those actions.
Chapter 111, Section 8C, indicates that the only way the city could stop fluoridation is through having 10 percent of a community’s residents sign a petition for a vote. However, this could only come about if the city’s Board of Health was seeking to up the amount of fluoride.
The Board of Health, however, is not currently looking to increase fluoridation levels at this time.
“I realize it’s unusual compared to some other approaches on this,” Foley said. “We found no laws that would prohibit a local government, or elected officials, from making a change like that.”
McGeary, however, said that while the council members will listen to the concerns of those at the hearing, “our hands are tied by state law.”
“As we understand it, unless (the state) Department of Public Health proposes a change in the level of fluoride, we are bound to follow the state guidelines,” he said. “There’s not much else we can do. …. That’s the advice we were given back in June.”
If the council does not agree to stop fluoridation, Foley said the network’s next step is to gather signatures through petitions.
“I don’t know where we’d go from that,” Foley said. “Normally those things are accepted.”
Foley said if such as petition were accepted for a ballot initiative, the group hopes there would be a vote after that.
Fluoridation has gotten mixed reviews on whether or not it actually leads to better oral health, the reason why it was put in drinking water decades ago.
Dr. Richard Sagall, who chairs the Board of Health, said his opinion remains unchanged, adding that the board has voted in favor of maintaining a fluoridated water system.
“We believe it’s a very effective public health measure and we support it,” he said.
Sagall added that dentists continue to agree with community fluoridation. Nearly three dozen in Cape Ann signed a letter in collective support.
He said these professionals make no financial gain from promoting fluoride, since he said it’s been shown to cut down on the number of dental emergencies people may have.
But the issue of continuing its use is hardly confined to Cape Ann. At least 140 water systems in Massachusetts, reaching more than 4 million people, add fluoride to the drinking water to fight cavities, according to the state Department of Public Health, and most have been doing so since the 1950s.
But activists in Newburyport, Topsfield, Canbridge and several other communities are fighting to end the practice, saying it causes potential health problems and raises constitutional issues.
Such concerns have kept several towns in the North Shore and Merrimack Valley region — including Georgetown, Merrimac and Rowley — from adding fluoride to their water. And other communities, like Amesbury and Methuen, have opted out of the program in recent years through public referendums.
Rowley voters rejected a proposal in 2000 to begin adding fluoride for the first time in decades, and the issue hasn’t come up again since then, Town Administrator Deb Egan told Times State House reporter Christian M. Wade.
“As I recall, there was tremendous opposition to adding it,” she said.
Matter of choice
Karen Favazza Spencer, a Gloucester resident who’s also opposed to continuing community-wide fluoridation, said she believes that it should be a person’s choice whether they want to drink fluoride or not — and she hopes Gloucester city officials will agree.
“If you want fluoride, you can buy those mouth washes and toothpastes,” she said.
Sagall said he hopes many show up at the public hearing to voice their opinions on both sides.
“We encourage anyone in the community to come,” he said. “We think community input is important.”