YORK COUNTY — Believe it or not, it’s almost election day, and while many may be breathing a collective sigh of relief, voters within the Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Wells Water District have a difficult choice to make come Nov. 8.
Voters in those towns — in addition to Ogunquit and parts of Arundel, York and coastal Biddeford — will decide via referendum whether or not to keep fluoridating their drinking water, and the matter has been a point of contention between those who want to discontinue use of fluoride and those who want it to stay.
The referendum asks: “Shall fluoride be added to the public water supply for the intended purpose of reducing tooth decay?”
The water district itself says “no.”
“Our water already has fluoride in it, so the question is should we be adding fluoride? And our position is no,” said Norm Labbe, superintendent of the water district. “We already have fluoride in the water. It’s at a lower level than what the full-fluriodationists (sic) would like to see, but it’s just a statistic fact that people are getting more fluoride through their diet.”
The federal government has set an optimal minimum requirement of 0.7 ppm of fluoride, and Maine has a minimum fluoridation requirement of 0.5 ppm, with an optimal guideline of 0.7 ppm.
Labbe said KKW’s water supply already contains a natural 0.2 to 0.3 parts per million of calcium fluoride, and residents are ingesting more fluoride than they need through toothpastes and other dietary sources.
That’s a problem, he said, because the reaction of fluoride with tooth enamel is topical. Labbe said fluoride is highly-reactive and bonds with calcium, a major component of bone, and could lead to bone loss.
He also said fluoride could lead to dental fluorosis, a primarily cosmetic, patchy whitening of the teeth, that signifies people are ingesting too much of the compound.
“There’s no systemic value to ingesting (fluoride),” he said. “There is an “epidemic of over-fluoridation going on in this country.”
However, supporters of the referendum, those who wish to continue adding fluoride to the water, disagree with Labbe’s and KKW’s stance, saying fluoride has no proven negative health effects.
“For those of us who really understand the science, this is a ‘no-brainer,’” said Dianne Smallidge, associate professor at the Forsyth School of Dental Hygiene at MCPHS University in Boston. “It’s not been proven in any study anywhere that it’s harmful to human beings. It’s disconcerting because a lot of people are using junk science to base their opinion and they’re not experts.”
Smallidge, who works in Boston but lives in Wells, said the ingestion of fluoride is safe and equally as effective as topical treatment, which she also said is necessary for dental health once the teeth erupt in childhood.
“The analogy I use is seatbelts and airbags. Both are equally effective in protecting us. Why choose one or the other?” Smallidge said. “The combination is safe and effective, and the combination helps more than one or the other on their own.”
She also listed the overwhelming support by various governmental and non-governmental organizations for the addition of fluoride to drinking water. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains that drinking fluoridated water reduces tooth decay by 25 percent in children and adults. The American Dental Association says the same.
“There’s just simply no strong evidence that there’s any health issues,” she added, saying that research shows tooth decay rates tend to increase when fluoride is removed from public drinking water supplies.
Labbe said the those living in the service area of KKW, primarily middle- to upper-middle-class people, tend to take care of their teeth than less affluent areas, and so excess fluoride isn’t necessary.
He also said people should be given the choice about the fluoride in their water, hypothetically saying if fluoridation is continued by only a small percentage of votes, then those who don’t want it shouldn’t be forced to drink it.
“You can take science and statistics and weave them into anything you want, but you can’t weave certain principles. One of them is a matter of choice,” Labbe said, calling fluoride a drug. “It should be prescribed if people need it.”