Jonesborough’s Board of Mayor and Alderman voted to discontinue the addition of fluoride to the town’s water supply after a lengthy Feb. 13 meeting that had speakers weighing both the pro’s and con’s.
“We had a public hearing last year,” Mayor Kelly Wolfe reminded the packed boardroom Monday night. “We have taken a very deliberative pause in this discussion to give our board a chance to talk to folks, to think about all the information we were given and to just really kind of stew on things so we wouldn’t make a hasty decision.”
The board also brought in two local spokesmen — Jonesborough dentist Dr. Allen Burleson and town resident and East Tennessee State University professor Dr. Jay Jarmin — to address both sides of the issue one last time.
In the end, however, the board made their decision, voting 3-1 in favor of discontinuing fluoride treatment in Jonesborough’s water, with Alderman Terry Countermine voting against the measure.
“I believe (fluoride) is one of the best efforts to help those who cannot help themselves,” Countermine said.
The issue, to add fluoride or not to add fluoride, has been a hot topic among board members and town residents alike since it came before the board in early 2016, with one town survey showing residents split down the middle as to the benefits of fluoride in drinking water.
“I’ve probably spent more time on this issue than any issue in my past 16 years on the board,” Countermine said.
Key points revolved around the importance of fluoride to prevent tooth decay; the benefits of topical fluoride treatment vs. ingesting fluoride; and the possible impact on lower income families in the region.
“We want to do the right thing,” said Burleson, who spoke on behalf of keeping fluoride in Jonesborough’s drinking water. “My concern is the underserved and the vulnerable.”
Burleson cited peer review studies indicating fluoride was key in battling tooth decay and that adding fluoride to water was the most affective way to ensure it reached all residents, irrespective of their income.
Jarmin, who spoke on behalf of discontinuing fluoride in water, said he was also concerned about the health and well being of the community.
But, “fluoride delivered in the public water supply is not the most affective way to provide fluoride and by doing so it causes more problems than it solves.”
He cited a lack of studies showing any benefit from ingesting fluoride and instead listed studies that indicate certain risks, including the possibility of impairing glucose tolerance, damaging kidney function and links to thyroid and endocrine disease.
Jamin also challenged the claim that fluoride is naturally occurring substance found in water anyway.
“That is calcium fluoride,” he said. “That’s not the same fluoride that is added to our water, which can be fluorosilicic acid and fluorosilicate.” And they hold, he said, a completely different chemical equation.
Jarman’s argument, and those like it, left an impact with several board members.
“This is one of those decisions you take seriously,” Alderman Chuck Vest said. “My biggest concern is the impact on the elderly class.”
Vest believes there is a vulnerability for older community members that should not be forgotten. And numerous reports indicating fluoride should not be ingested brought him to his vote to discontinue town fluoride treatment.
Alderman David Sell agreed.
“There is a lot of arguments on both sides,” Sell said. “I hate that we are in this position.”
But what it comes down to, he said, is “we’re medicating the water. And to me, that’s above my pay grade.”
Wolfe also voiced concerns about the changing science that has dramatically changed optimal levels for the substance, nearly reducing the recommended amount by half.
“We are layman here,” Wolfe said. “We’re not health professionals. But we are representatives of this community.”
Wolfe, along with Alderman Jerome Fitzgerald and Countermine, strongly advocated taking the approximately $12,000 that would be saved and instead channeling it into a school and community program to ensure underserved water customers would have better access to topical fluoride treatments such as rinses.
And Vest added that language to his motion to discontinue fluoride.
Wolfe said he had already been in touch with Director of Schools Kimber Halliburton with the idea of partnering in such a project.
For Countermine, who expressed disappointment at the vote, this final proposal to provide additional support to the community so no one “falls through the cracks” is crucial to ensuring the board and the town continue to take care of its community.