Martinsville City Council needs to be careful in deciding whether the city should continue adding fluoride to its drinking water, considering that a lot of people consider it medicine, according to Dr. Mary Helen Hensley.
“Your job is to provide clean and safe drinking water” to city residents, Hensley, a former chiropractic physician and Martinsville resident who now lives in Ireland, told the council Tuesday night during a session in which public input was sought on whether fluoride should continue being added to water. No action was taken afterward.
Medical science shows fluoride is safe at certain levels, according to supporters.
But “it’s impossible to regulate” how much fluoride a person receives from various sources, including water as well as toothpaste and other dental care products, Hensley said.
For that reason, many counties in Ireland recently have decided to remove fluoride from their water, she said.
Places throughout the United States have added fluoride, a derivative of the element fluorine, to their drinking water since the 1940s to help prevent tooth decay and dental diseases, especially among children. Martinsville has fluoridated its water since the 1960s. The American Dental Association, which supports the practice, reports that about 75 percent of people nationwide who are connected to public water supplies have fluoridated water.
However, studies have indicated that getting too much fluoride could lead to dental and health problems such as white spots on teeth, thyroid troubles, hyperactivity and brain disorders.
“There is too much conflicting information” to spend tax money on water fluoridation, said city resident Matthew Huckfeldt.
Martinsville spends about $15,000 a year to add fluoride to its water. The expense represents 0.00016 percent of the city’s overall budget of more than $95 million for the current fiscal year.
Fluoridation is a voluntary measure among public water systems and is not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or the Environmental Protection Agency, a federal website shows.
“No court in the nation has determined fluoridation to be unlawful,” Dr. Jody Hershey, director of the Henry-Martinsville Health Department, said during the meeting. He said fluoride is a nutrient, not a medication.
Hershey presented the council various documents indicating that fluoridation is safe and effective, as well as supported by numerous health-related organizations, including the American Public Health Association, Virginia Dental Association, American Academy of Pediatrics and the national Children’s Dental Health Project.
The evidence is overwhelming, Hershey said.
Martinsville dentist Dr. Mark Crabtree, president of the Piedmont Virginia Dental Health Foundation and a former mayor of the city, agreed. He said the city’s cost to add fluoride to its water is minimal compared to the overall cost to dentists and patients of having cavities in children’s teeth fixed.
But “no study has ever revealed” that someone contracted a dental disease as a result of receiving too little fluoride, said city resident Tom Marshall, an opponent of the practice.
Marshall suggested that instead of using fluoridated water, people who want fluoride for their teeth receive it through topical applications, such as varnishes that dentists can apply to patients’ teeth.
Dr. Craig Dietrich, a Martinsville School Board member who is a dentist, indicated it would be too costly and time-consuming for dentists to provide such treatments to everyone who would need them. He suggested that if Martinsville decides to quit fluoridating its water, the city should provide $15,000 annually to the dental health foundation to continue providing dental care to financially strapped city residents.
At least a dozen people gave their opinions about fluoridating water during the council meeting. Some support the city continuing to do so, while others do not.
Decisions on health care issues, such as whether to fluoridate water, “should not be made by government officials” who have no medical background, said city resident Joe Martin.
Another resident, Rich Holland, said it is “immoral to force this medical treatment” on people without their consent.
Nobody is forced to drink city water, Hershey said. They can drink bottled water, although some brands of that also contain fluoride.
Several speakers during the discussion indicated that chemical forms of fluoride added to drinking water may not be pure fluoride.
“Fluoride is fluoride,” said Jeff Wells, field director of the Virginia Department of Health’s regional Office of Drinking Water in Danville.
The effect is the same “no matter how you put it in” water, said Andy Lash, Martinsville’s superintendent of water resources.
Noting that the council heard a lot of information on both sides of the issue, Vice Mayor Jennifer Bowles said a vote on whether city water should continue to be fluoridated should be taken at the July 28 council meeting. That should be “the end” of the issue, she said.
Council members indicated that the issue will not be on the official agenda, and a member will need to bring it up for further discussion.
Councilwoman Sharon Brooks Hodge favors discontinuing fluoridation.
“I’m a little bit skeptical” of government stances on some public health issues and concerned about whether government has the right to force something that might be unsafe on the public, Hodge said.
“Rest assured … I’m not going to let it (the issue) drop,” she said, adding that if no one else does first, she will make a motion during the July 28 meeting to discontinue fluoridation.
Councilman Gene Teague said that in his personal research on the issue, he has found that “a preponderance of evidence” suggests that fluoride is safe at certain levels and helps prevent tooth problems. Therefore, continuing to put fluoride in Martinsville’s water is “the right practice,” he said.
Other council members gave no indication as to how they would vote.