Supported by medical professionals but opposed by environmentalists and water companies, a plan to require all of New Jersey’s public water supplies be treated with fluoride cleared an Assembly committee today.

Assembly Health Committee Chairman and bill sponsor Herb Conaway made it clear from the outset of today’s hearing that the bill would be approved by his panel, saying it is “appalling” New Jersey sits near at the bottom of the national list for the number of people who have access to teeth-strengthening fluoride.

“We need to do something to change that,” he said.

Three top officials for the New Jersey Dental Association strongly urged the committee to support the bill for the good of all children and even adults.

Tooth decay is the most prevalent chronic disease among children, Arthur Meisel, the association’s executive director and counsel testified.

“This will not only improve oral health,” Meisel said. “We’re not asking you to spend money. We’re coming to you to ask you to save money” – result of fewer dental claims submitted to the state health benefits plan.

About 184 million people in the country drink fluoridated water, dental association officials said. In New Jersey, municipalities are free to decide whether to mandate water fluoridation. Trenton adds fluoride to its water; Newark, Camden, Paterson and Atlantic City do not, Meisel said. Only about 22 percent of the state’s residents get fluoride-treated waters from their tap.

Environmental advocates insisted the committee was rushing the bill (A3709) and should pause to examine the impact of fluoride and other potentially dangerous additives would have on riverbeds, as well as overexposure on humans.

Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, said he worried residents may be exposed to an “industrial grade” of fluoride, laced with arsenic and mercury. “Our concern is to make sure it’s a pure form of fluoride,” he said.

The committee approved the bill by a 10-0 vote with one abstention by Assemblyman Vincent Polistina (R-Atlantic), who said he needed to do more research on the issue. The bill moves to the full Assembly where Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts may post it for a vote.