Putting fluoride in Meadville’s water supply has been a topic which has been debated off and on for more than 60 years. Discussion in front of the board that decides Meadville water supply’s fluoride fate could return as early as August.
Fluoride is a hot button topic because talks of adding it to the city’s water brought speakers, for and against, to a Meadville Area Water Authority (MAWA) meeting in 2013 to convince the authority one way and the other. Fluoride is a compound used in preventing tooth decay and cavities.
Of the two groups presenting to MAWA in 2013, Community Initiative for Improved Dental Health (CIIDH) spoke on behalf of putting fluoride in the water. Clean Water Meadville made it clear it doesn’t want fluoride added to the water. Both groups have circulated petitions and traded letters to the editor and columns regarding their stance on the issue.
MAWA tabled taking any action or further fluoride discussions in 2013 with the intention of settling the matter in 2014. At that time, MAWA Chairman Tim Groves said adding fluoride to the water wouldn’t be discussed until the $9.2 million Highland Tanks and Clearwell projects were completed. The projects were projected for completion in mid-summer 2014 at that time.
Both projects are still ongoing and scheduled to be completed in July. Almost two years later, Groves said MAWA hasn’t moved from the stance it took in 2013 — fluoride won’t be discussed until after the construction projects are completed.
Newly elected MAWA Vice Chairman Dr. Dennis Finton concurred with Groves and said MAWA has other pressing matters before fluoride can be discussed.
“The focus is to get a full board (of five) in place,” Finton said.
Joe Stainbrook’s January resignation from MAWA has brought applications from six people to fill the vacated seat. Mark Gildea, Chris Knapp, Sharon Dale, Rick Minman, Roseanne Rust and Glenn Tuttle have been interviewed and are awaiting Meadville City Council’s decision on who will be appointed.
The decision to add fluoride to the water supply rests solely with the five individuals serving on the MAWA board. City Council can appoint those to serve on MAWA but can’t override MAWA’s decision regarding fluoride.
This doesn’t mean fluoride hasn’t been brought up in a city meeting.
At the annual Meadville City Health Board meeting, Deputy Mayor LeRoy Stearns presented health board Chairman John Battaglia with a letter asking for public hearings and education so people can make an informed decision whether they want fluoride in their water.
In the letter, Stearns asked the health board to take the lead educating the public regarding fluoride and to bring in outside people to talk about both sides of the issue.
“I want the community to be educated,” Stearns said. “And I want an unbiased story told to me.”
There are funds available to the health board for public education and the third class city code permits the health board to offer this service, according to Stearns.
“I think that’s the only fair way to me,” said Stearns, referring to bringing in outside experts.
Public notification of intent to fluoridate water supplies is one of the requirements the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has in place prior to issuing municipalities permits to add fluoride to the water. Informational leaflets, pamphlets, newspaper articles or direct mailings meet the requirement for adequate customer notification of possible fluoridation, according to the state DEP.
Fluoride cannot be allowed to be put on the ballot as a referendum question, according to the Department of Community Economic Development, which develops the handbook about what can and can’t become a referendum.
Another issue is aside from Meadville, MAWA serves customers in Vernon, West Mead and Woodcock townships, who have no representation on the water board. Only Meadville residents are allowed to serve on the MAWA board.
The most recent debate over fluoridating Meadville’s water supply is not the first time the issue has been raised or sparked controversy.
In 1954, fluoride was a referendum question on the ballot in Meadville and was defeated, according to Tribune archives.
In June 1966, members of the Crawford County Dental Society, the Crawford County Medical Society and the Board of Health made a request to Meadville City Council to fluoridate Meadville’s water. Council told the three organizations who wanted fluoride that it would be comfortable making an action which would overturn the 1954 referendum if the organizations could gather petitions with 2,500 signatures of residents.
The Citizens Committee for Fluoridation organized in December 1966, with its first order of business to gather the petitions requested by council.
The committee presented petitions with more than 2,000 signatures to City Council on Feb. 14, 1967. At the next council meeting, an anti-fluoride group presented council with a petition of its own with 4,804 signatures.
The second petition raised an outcry from the Committee for Fluoridation, which said that if council were to make its decision solely on which petition had the most signatures, council would be conducting a “backdoor” referendum.
On March 14, 1967, City Council voted 3-2 to fluoridate Meadville’s water. City Council was able to decide and vote on the issue because the city owned the water authority in 1967, unlike today where the authority is owned by MAWA and managed by American Water.
After first approving fluoridation, council reversed its decision on April 25, 1967. The city attorney had advised council that adding fluoride to the water would put the city in violation of the Pennsylvania Adulterated or Misbranded Food statutes. The city attorney further advised council that the city could face criminal or civil court action if it followed through with fluoridating the water. Council voted 3-2 to drop the fluoridation matter.
The debate continues
In 2011, the Meadville Medical Center’s Community Health Assessment showed oral health is the biggest medical need in the community. The CIIDH and Meadville Area Cooperative (MAC) both were formed with the goal of having fluoride added to Meadville’s water. CIIDH and MAC are comprised of members from Meadville Medical Center, Crawford Central School District, Allegheny College and concerned community members.
The main presenter to MAWA at its 2013 meeting for CIIDH was Dr. Denise Johnson, an obstetrician/gynecologist who serves as MMC’s chief medical officer and CIIDH chair.
The CIIDH would like MAWA to fluoridate Meadville’s water to the recommended levels set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Johnson said. The CDC recommends 0.7 parts per million.
Parts per million is used to measure the mass ratio between an additive component and a solution such as air, water and body fluids.
“We understand the water authority has some huge projects on its plate,” Johnson said. “We’re certainly respectful of that.”
The CIIDH circulated a petition a year ago and gathered 1,000 signatures of people supporting fluoridation, according to Johnson. That petition will be among the supporting materials for CIIDH’s next presentation to MAWA, Johnson said.
“We really believe this is something beneficial for the citizens of Meadville,” Johnson said.
The spokesman for the opposing group, Clean Water Meadville, is Dr. Chris Knapp, a local chiropractor.
“With this issue there is no informed consent — you have to drink water,” Knapp said. “It’s a poor way to administer medication.”
Knapp and his supporters recognize fluoride has some valuable properties and agree it should be made available to those who want it — just not in the community water supply.
Clean Water Meadville has also been circulating petitions and has approximately 300 signatures, according to Knapp.
For information regarding the benefits of fluoridated water, the Community Initiative for Improved Dental Health has a website, meadvillesmiles.com.
For information about adverse effects of fluoridated water, Clean Water Meadville has a website, cleanwatermeadville.org, and may be found on Facebook by searching “Clean Water Meadville.”