Voters within the Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Wells Water District will decide via referendum on Nov. 8 whether or not to keep fluoridating their drinking water.
At a public forum at the Biddeford City Council meeting on Tuesday, representatives from the company, dental health professionals and members of the public aired their opinions about the referendum.
The district, which provides water to those three towns in addition to Ogunquit and parts of Arundel, York and coastal Biddeford, has taken the stance against fluoridating its drinking water, citing health concerns.
“We have taken a position against continuing the practice of adding fluoride to the water we serve our customers,” Norm Labbe, KKWWD superintendent, said before the council. “The only way we can stop this mandated practice is for the public to vote it out.”
Labbe has previously stated his opposition to fluoridating his district’s water.
He told the Journal Tribune in August that he believes the fluoridation process is no longer necessary because people ingest more fluoride through their diet now than they did in the past. Excess fluoride consumption may be a health hazard, possibly leading to weaker bones because fluoride bonds strongly to calcium.
“The wording of the question is, ‘Shall fluoride be added to the public water supply for the intended purpose of reducing tooth decay?’ In simple terms, the only answer we are in support of is, ‘No,’” Labbe said before the council.
Labbe was met with opposition by Dean Tourigny, a Biddeford dentist who argued fluoride does have health benefits and that fluoridation of KKWWD’s water was decided upon by voters in the past.
“I just want to let people know that fluoride in the water is probably one of the best public health initiatives that has ever happened,” Tourigny said. “Dentists universally will tell you the improvements in dental health are obvious. Every study shows fluoride is safe.”
Others voiced their frustration with the ballot’s wording, which is mandated by state law Title 22, Chapter 601.
“The ballot question wording is misleading to the public,” said Pam Jones, a Kennebunk resident. “As a drinker of water, I’m upset to hear that the dental community thinks I’m just teeth. I’m more than just my teeth. I’m not in favor of drinking that in my water, and I think we should have a choice.
“The people who want fluoride can get a prescription. I’m not in favor of a prescription in my water.”
Local farmer Richard Rhames said he is interested to know why Maine Water Co., which provides water to Biddeford, Saco, Old Orchard Beach and several other Maine communities, hasn’t issued a statement regarding its stance on the issue.
Vice President of Operations for Maine Water, Rick Knowlton, said Wednesday that the decision to fluoridate a municipal water supply is entirely up to a vote by the municipality’s constituents, and that it supports KKWWD’s decision to take the issue before the public.
“Maine Water doesn’t take a position on the benefits or detriments on fluoride as a dental health medication,” Knowlton said. “We totally support a community’s right to decide. We have not initiated a petition to put (fluoridation) back on the ballot, but we would support either our community’s petition to do so or our customers petition to do so.”
Knowlton said fluoridation does cost a water company money, although not a significant amount. At Maine Water, it costs customers an average of $1 per year to fluoridate the water supply. Maine Water supplies drinking water to about 32,000 customers, or 90,000 individuals.
Labbe said in an email Wednesday that it costs about $20,000 each year to fluoridate KKWWD’s water supply. He said the figure is not an insignificant amount of money for a $7 million a year operation, but added that cost is not a motivating factor in the water district’s position against fluoridation.
“It’s not enough to influence this kind of policy decision relating to the health and welfare of our customers and our employees,” he said.
Labbe also said customers will not see an immediate reduction in water costs – if any – should voters choose to cease fluoridation, though he also said the next rate increase may be less than usual.
Because the question was issued by voters and the water district itself, local governments essentially have no role in the referendum other than to put it on the ballot in November.
“The selectmen may have their own personal stances, but they have not collectively taken a position on it,” said Wells Town Manager Jon Carter on Thursday. “(The question) was required by the statues to be put on, because it had enough signatures by petitioners to meet the water district’s requirement to be on the ballot.”
Carter said he isn’t sure which way voters in Wells will swing, since the majority of those receiving water from KKWWD are mostly seasonal residents or hospitality businesses located east of the Maine Turnpike.
“I don’t know what interest there is in Wells other than those who live east of the turnpike,” Carter said. “Most of those west of the turnpike are the year-rounders, and they don’t have fluoride in their water.”
Wells held a public hearing on the issue on Sept. 6, although no more forums are planned, Carter said. Arundel will be holding a public hearing regarding the fluoride referendum at 7 p.m. Monday at the Mildred L. Day School.
The organization Healthy Teeth, Healthy Smiles, a citizens’ group that works to promote oral health, will also be holding an informational session at the Kennebunk Town Hall from 7-9 p.m. Oct. 3 to discuss the potential benefits of community water fluoridation.
Labbe said moving forward, he wants to ensure that people understand the ballot’s intent, because although the water company’s stance is to stop fluoridation, the question pertains to adding fluoride.
“The wording is geared toward the addition of fluoride; not the cessation of the addition of fluoride,” Labbe said. “The referendum vote that the petitioners and the Water District are in support of is ‘No.’”