The five-member Meadville Area Water Authority board will vote on water fluoridation at 10 a.m. Wednesday at a special meeting at the Lew Davies Community Center, 1034 Park Ave. The meeting is open to the public.
With the vote fast approaching, forces on both sides of the debate, board members, MAWA staff and others have been hard at work making final arguments, considering last minute comments and researching any questions remaining after years of build up to the decision.
The public writes
What had been a steady trickle of opinions grew to a flood this week as the day set for MAWA’s vote on fluoridation looms just a few days away.
MAWA had received 91 comments through mail and email as of Monday, according to Business Manager Yvonne Shaffer. By Friday, that figure had increased by more than 50 percent as correspondence from about 50 more people was received.
More significantly, MAWA also received a petition supporting fluoridation with approximately 900 signatures as well as a stack of more than 200 postcards, also in support. The correspondence and the petition have been forwarded to the five MAWA board members, Shaffer said, and they have been informed of the postcards, which they can view at the MAWA office.
Shaffer said on Friday that she had not compared the postcards received to the petition to detect possible duplicate names.
With approximately 1,250 comments received since the May 4 public meeting on fluoridation, the vast majority — about 1,140, assuming there are no duplicate names between the pro-fluoridation petition and other correspondence — has been in favor of fluoridation, with just about 100 opposed, according to Shaffer. Even if all of those who submitted postcards had also signed the petition, the comments would still be more than 9 to 1 in favor of fluoridation.
The public can speak
When plans for the meeting were first discussed at the MAWA board’s monthly meeting in May, attorney Ted Watts advised the board that it need not allow public comment before the vote.
Watts cited the board’s public comment policy, which affords the board “the right to refuse permission to any individual to speak at an open meeting to address the same subject discussed at a previous meeting.”
The board has since decided to allow public comment under the authority’s usual policies before the Wednesday vote.
“We’re going to allow 30 minutes,” MAWA President Tim Groves said of the public comment period that will precede the vote. “We felt maybe we just ought to do it.”
MAWA’s public comment policy allows each speaker a period of up to three minutes with a limit of 30 minutes total for all speakers.
“I would rather err on the side of caution and make sure we do it correctly so whichever way the vote is we can go forward with it,” Groves added. Groves is one of just two board members who has not yet publicly taken a position on fluoridation. Mark Gildea is the other. John Fulmer and Hal Tubbs both stated their opposition to fluoridation at the May meeting while Dennis Finton favored the move.
The public will have a chance to comment, but Groves said it was hard to imagine that anyone would say something that board members have not already heard.
The expert speaks on cost, safety
Opponents of fluoridation have consistently challenged everything from the science supporting fluoridation to the ethics of supplying fluoride to everyone without gaining consent from all those who would be affected. Some opponents have even questioned the motives of members of the Meadville community in favor of fluoridation.
Two points that have consistently been raised are the cost of fluoridation and safety concerns raised by the source of the fluoride used to treat water. While advocates for and against the practice disagree about who can credibly evaluate these concerns, MAWA’s resident expert has offered definitive answers to both questions — answers that are supported by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the experience of the Erie water authority, which began fluoridation 15 years ago.
A representative example of the cost-based argument against fluoridation came from Tubbs following the May public forum on fluoridation.
“Can you say, ‘Waste my money on fluoride?’” he asked after declaring his opposition. Regardless of any benefits or dangers posed by fluoridation, Tubbs argued, the vast majority of fluoride will wind up going down the drain rather than in people’s mouths.
Thomas Thompson of Gannett Fleming has served as MAWA’s consulting engineer for nearly five years, a period which has included the authority’s two largest infrastructure projects in recent memory, the Highland Avenue water tanks and the new clearwell.
Thompson estimated that the likely maximum cost for fluoridation would be $2.90 per customer per year. The estimate includes costs for purchasing equipment, going through the permitting process and buying the actual fluoride.
“We don’t want to sugarcoat it,” he said. “We’d rather give a realistic estimate and hopefully come in a little bit under.”
The source of the fluoride itself has been another bone of contention for opponents. Fluorosilicic acid (FSA) is used for fluoridation in about 95 percent of communities that add fluoride, according to the CDC website. Describing it as “a byproduct of the phosphate fertilizer industry,” fluoridation opponents have suggested that toxic substances such as arsenic could be present in FSA, which is not required to be “pharmaceutical grade.”
Thompson said that while it is much too early for MAWA to have identified a potential chemical provider for fluoridation, the safety of the source was not a concern from his point of view.
“It has to be an NSF-approved chemical,” he said. “We wouldn’t purchase it if it weren’t.”
NSF International, formerly the National Sanitation Foundation, is an independent public health and safety organization that tests and certifies a wide variety of products around the world. The additives already in MAWA water, such as chlorine, are governed by NSF standards and testing processes.
The Erie experience
While Thompson spoke about fluoridation in hypothetical terms, Paul Vojtek, the CEO of Erie Water Works (EWW), spoke from the perspective of 15 years of experience with fluoridation — 15 years that came after a protracted and contentious deliberation period that Vojtek compared to the one MAWA is enduring right now.
“Lots of scare tactics were used, similar to Meadville,” he said.
Now, EWW specifies FSA when accepting formal bids from chemical suppliers, Vojtek said, citing the “food-grade” quality of the compound.
While the decision making process was divided, Erie’s experience with fluoridation, according to Vojtek, has been a complete success. Though he had initially been neutral on the issue, evidence and results swayed him in favor of fluoride, Vojtek said.
“We haven’t had anything negative against it,” he said, even as he sympathized with some of the objections to fluoridation. “‘Forced medication?’ I get that, but you can also avoid it if you really want to.”
Ultimately, Vojtek recommended, people should defer to medical professionals.
“These are educated people that are dedicated to improving the health of the people of the United States,” he said. “You can’t always say there’s a conspiracy.”