NORTH ATTLEBORO — In an apparent stealth move, the board of health voted Tuesday to halt fluoridation of the town’s water supply.
The board also acted in disregard of an opinion two years ago from Town Counsel Robert Bliss that it does not have the statutory authority to supersede a November 2000 ballot question in which voters approved fluoridation of the water supply.
Bliss determined that the board does not have the authority to suspend fluoridation.
Tuesday’s vote was 2-1, with Chairwoman Deborah Morse and board member Diane Battistello voting to halt fluoridation, and board member Donald Bates voting in opposition.
The motion was introduced by Morse, despite assurances from Battistello a day earlier that fluoridation would not be discussed at the meeting. The meeting agenda also made no mention of fluoridation.
In making the motion, Morse seemed to dismiss town counsel’s opinion, calling it “only his opinion.”
Despite the board’s action, fluoride still was being applied to the water supply on Wednesday.
Department of Public Works Director Michael Stankovich said he has not received a written order from the board of health to end fluoridation.
Once a cease-and-desist order is received, Stankovich said it will be forwarded to town counsel for an opinion and presented to the board of public works for discussion of how to proceed.
While state law lays out a process for approving fluoridation, it does not include provisions for removing the substance once voters have approved it.
Fluoridation is a common practice across the country. It is injected into public water supplies to prevent tooth decay. The board of health’s action followed three public forums it sponsored on fluoride toxicity, the most recent one on Monday.
Battistello told a Sun Chronicle reporter after that forum that the board had no intention of addressing fluoride in upcoming board meetings.
“We don’t have any plans,” she said on Monday. “We’re just here to listen, and we’re responding to requests we received to hold open public discussions on the issue.”
Battistello said on Wednesday she had no idea fluoride would be brought to a vote at Tuesday’s meeting.
“At that time, I had no intention of bringing up fluoride,” she said. “Later, Deborah (Morse) suggested we bring notes to the meeting. To the best of my knowledge, when you asked me about it, it wasn’t an agenda item.”
The board’s action comes just three weeks before Morse leaves the board. She is not seeking re-election.
Both Morse and Battistello have said they were personally opposed to fluoridation, but that they had no intention of making it a public issue. Both have also denied that the issue prompted them to run for seats on the board of health.
But on Wednesday, Battistello expressed unequivocal opposition to fluoridation.
Battistello said she is concerned “that government agencies are administering to an entire population a daily dose of non-FDA approved medication comprised of toxic waste, and that media coverage often fails to see the complete picture.”
Selectmen Chairwoman Marjorie Kraskouskas said she was disappointed by the board of health’s vote to halt fluoridation.
“Although the board of health members have stated that fluoride is not an issue, they’ve misled the public. It apparently was a major issue for them,” Kraskouskas said. “It’s too bad, because it takes attention away from the other issues the board should be focusing on.”
Bates, who opposed the motion to halt fluoridation, said he was surprised it even came up at Tuesday’s board meeting.
“If you listen to the tape, I said something like, ‘Well, you’ve certainly dropped a bombshell. I don’t think the board has the authority to do this. Plus, the townspeople voted for it, and I think getting rid of fluoride would require a vote of the townspeople.'”
In an interview Wednesday, Morse seemed to dismiss town counsel’s opinion that the board has no authority to halt fluoridation.
“In his letter to the board, town counsel has indicated that – in his opinion – the board of health cannot decide against the wishes of the voters of North Attleboro,” she said. “This is only his opinion.”
“I dare say the previous board did not ask his opinion before they ordered water fluoridation against the wishes voters expressed twice in years past,” Morse said. “In my opinion, water fluoridation is an outdated public policy whose time has come to be reversed.”
Morse pointed out that Plainville residents, who have rejected fluoride in their own town vote in 2002, are receiving fluoridated water because the town shares a water treatment plant with North Attleboro.
Morse said bringing up the issue was her duty as a public servant.
“I did not disregard the townwide vote, you cannot disregard the townwide vote,” she said. “It’s not up to me to decide whose vote counts more, North Attleboro’s or Plainville’s.”
Asked if the decision to halt fluoridation was an indication that Plainville voters weighed more heavily than North Attleboro’s, Morse replied: “I’m not saying either one counts more.”