The debate surfaced earlier in Rockport, where voters at an upcoming Town Meeting will decide whether to put a fluoride question on a ballot for the next local election.
The issue was raised by the Cape Ann Fluoride Action Network, a group that is trying to remove fluoride from the city’s water, as well.
“Our mission is to educate the public on the dangers of fluoride and petition the city to remove fluoride from the drinking water,” said Tracey Chiancola, member of the action network and a Gloucester resident.
She said sodium fluoride first surfaced as a byproduct of the aluminum industry in the 1940s and 1950s.
“I became concerned we’re drinking this substance that’s toxic,” she said. From there, she reached out to doctors, dentists and members of various institutes. She said some problems caused by sodium fluoride include learning disabilities and brain development. She also said a majority of Europe has unfluoridated water, with similar rates in tooth decay.
In response, however — and in an effort to better educate the public about their view — Dr. Richard Sagall, who chairs the city’s Board of Health and Noreen Burke, Gloucester’s public health director say the benefits of fluoride are clear.
Burke said records show that Gloucester began adding fluoride to the water in 1981. She said the city also created an ad hoc committee with the Board of Health, a dentist and others last month.
“We support fluoridation of the water,” Sagall said.
He said fluoride indeed makes a difference in fighting tooth decay, but added that “there are many other things to support fluoride use.”
Sagall and Burke noted the amount of fluoride currently added to Gloucester’s water is low — about 0.3 or 0.4 parts per million compared to the federal and state recommended level of about 1.0 parts per million.
The push to get fluoride out of water is not local, Burke noted. “This is a national movement,” she said.
Sagall said that the use of anything in excess can cause problems, but the state Department of Public Health, the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control all recommend fluoride use in drinking water.
Sagall recognized the sheer amount of data on the issue, from seemingly endless amounts of government agencies, experts, institutions and dentists.
“You have to look at the preponderance of evidence,” he said.
While the city’s top health officials said sticking with fluoride was the right move, the Board of Health is expected to formally vote on a recommendation on Thursday.
Sagall also noted that the city’s Board of Health cannot lower the amount of fluoride in the water, only add to it. The city follows recommendations by the state DPH when it comes to fluoride levels in water.
Burke said the Cape Ann Fluoride Action Network can place a question on a future ballot about fluoride in Gloucester if the group gets signatures from 10 percent of registered voters — or about 2,000 people.
For its part, however, the network has scheduled a New York state chemistry professor to speak about fluoride at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 2, at the Rockport High School auditorium.
Dr. Paul Connett is a graduate of Cambridge University and holds a Ph.D. in chemistry from Dartmouth College. In May 2006, he retired from his full professorship in chemistry at St. Lawrence University in New York, where he taught for 23 years. For the past 13 years he has traveled the world giving over 2,000 lectures in the areas of waste management and water fluoridation, according to a release from the network.
The group also invited those supporting fluoride to join Connett in an open forum on Sunday, Aug. 3, at 7 p.m., again at Rockport High School.