A 2000 referendum on whether to put fluoride into the public drinking water tore the town apart with frequent infighting and hard feelings, and now North Attleboro may have to relive that experience.
The prospect of another fluoride referendum has many town officials and residents aghast as they remember the fight over the last referendum as a bad time in town history.
The possibility was raised last week in a published legal ad from the public works department. It also stated that proper levels of fluoride have not been added to town water since 2011.
“The department will also meet with the board of health and town council to discuss putting a ballot question before residents through a town-wide vote to eliminate the addition of fluoride to the system,” the ad stated.
Public works director Mark Hollowell said that sentence was put in at the request of the public works board. Messages sent this past week to board chairman Michael Thompson and members Joan Marchitto and Anthony Rinald were not returned.
The apparent intention to revisit the issue of whether the town should fluoridate its water has not gone over well.
“Honestly, I don’t understand why that is the question,” town council President Keith Lapointe said.
Lapointe said he would be willing to listen to the DPW on the issue, but finds it strange that it would want the town to vote on whether to implement something that was already voted on.
Health board members John Donohue and Don Bates said they are opposed to another referendum and want steps taken to implement the original vote by adding the proper amount of fluoride to the water.
They said the issue was settled and the vote caused a lot of hard feelings in town.
Fluoride advocates argued that it helps strengthen teeth and prevent decay while opponents said it was unnecessary and unhealthy.
“Oh, that was a piece of work,” Bates said of the tensions at the time.
“It should be in the water because the people voted for it,” he added.
Donohue said tensions were still running high when he ran for the health board in 2007, seven years after the referendum vote.
He said he ran because two of the three board members were opposed to fluoride and initiated a lawsuit to stop DPW from adding it to the water.
“I don’t believe one town board should be suing another,” he said.
The suit was eventually dropped after Donohue won.
There was also talk at that time of holding another referendum, but selectmen refused.
News reports at the time said town officials believed there was no state provision for voting to end a fluoride program, however, the state Department of Public Health and Department of Environmental Protection could not confirm that this week.
The campaign for and against fluoride was heated and divisive, Donohue said, with outside “experts” coming to town to tell North Attleboro residents how they should vote.
He said he doesn’t want to see the town go through that again.
Diane Battistello was on the other side of the issue, and also recalls it as an unpleasant time.
“I do remember it was a very stressful time where the health board was divided,” she said.
She said another resident, the late Gloria Levaggi, started the opposition movement, and Battistello added that after she joined the cause she received threatening phone calls.
Battistello was the health board member Donohue defeated. She has since moved to Norton and is a member of the health board there, but said her moving had nothing to do with the election.
Town officials are scheduled to meet Nov. 12 to decide what to do about the lack of fluoride in the water system. Another question they want answered is why the situation took years to become known publicly.
North Attleboro water was apparently getting the proper level of fluoride for the first years of the program, but the addition of fluoride stopped at certain wells in 2011 when mechanical problems arose.
The main well at Whiting Street has been working well and adding the proper amount — 0.7 parts per million — all along, but the others were not, so the fluoride was sometimes diluted.
But town officials said they were never told.
Health director Anne Marie Fleming said she became aware of the situation only recently when she saw a state report on the quality of the town’s water supply.
The report in previous years only dealt with contaminants and fluoride is not considered a contaminant.
But Fleming said the person who did the most recent report was more thorough, and she saw most wells were not getting fluoride.
That was in August.
Hollowell said the town’s main supply of water comes through Whiting Street treatment facility, which has been adding the proper amount of fluoride the whole time.
The other wells are smaller and are sometimes shut down in winter, spring and fall because the state has strict limits on how much water can be removed from them, he said.
Therefore, he said, most of the time the town is getting the full amount of fluoride or close to it.
However, when the other wells are being heavily used, such in summer, the fluoride is diluted. There can be other times when the west side of town is getting no fluoride because it is being served by the smaller wells, he said.
Fleming also said it appears the majority of the town is getting fluoride the majority of the time.
Hollowell said most of the older facilities in the water department were never designed to handle fluoride and were never updated for the additive.
The Whiting Street facility — which includes an office, a well, and a treatment plant — is relatively new, and when it was built in 2001 it was equipped to handle fluoride.
The other facilities do not have the proper equipment, he said. They also need heat and ventilation for the safe handling of the fluoride, which is added in the form of sodium fluoride.
Adamsdale and Kelley wells were shut down in 2011 for repairs and renovating them for fluoride was never included in the plan, he said.
Fluoride had rotted a $45,000 pump at Adamsdale because, due to the lack of proper equipment, the additive was being dumped directly into the well instead of being mixed and pumped in.
Kelley would need better ventilation and other upgrades to handle the fluoride process, he said.
Hollowell said he never added the renovations to his capital improvement plan so other officials were never alerted to the need.
“It just fell off the plate. I know that’s not a very good answer for you,” he said, adding that he admits he made a mistake.
He said updating the other well facilities to accommodate fluoride will be expensive.
Adamsdale is too small so it would probably need an annex or shed-like addition, along with ventilation, heat, a hopper for mixing, and a pump.
Kelley is already big enough but would need things like ventilation. Hollowell said he is unsure whether another well, called Hillman, would need an addition because it is medium size.
He said he is still getting estimates, but believes each facility will need $100,000 to $300,000 in renovations and equipment.
The federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends communities add 0.7 parts per million of fluoride to the water for dental health reasons.
It also recommends that if the water has less than that amount, as North Attleboro’s could have at times, people should consult with their dentist about possible adjustment to their oral hygiene routine.
Most of the large city water systems in Massachusetts as well as many small towns add fluoride to the water and have been doing so for decades.
The state Department of Public Health says 70 percent of Massachusetts residents have fluoride added to their water.
Locally, Attleboro, Mansfield, Norfolk and Seekonk have it.
The private King’s Grant Water in North Attleboro does have not fluoride.