BELLOWS FALLS — Trustees plan to revisit whether to continue adding fluoride to the public water system after health concerns were raised about the tooth decay-fighting additive.
The Bellows Falls Board of Trustees agreed to hold a public hearing Aug. 23 to discuss the issue of fluoride, which has been added to the drinking water in the village for 30 years.
Trustee Luise Light said she pressed trustees after reading “alarming” research that linked fluoride to an increase in bone cancer in teenage and preteen boys.
“This is one of the worst public poisons on Earth,” Light, a dietician, said. “We don’t need it in our water supply.”
Bellows Falls joins other Vermont communities, such as Burlington, Brattleboro and Bennington, to debate the controversial topic in recent years. About 45 communities in the state now add fluoride to the drinking water, according to the Vermont Department of Health.
The Centers for Disease Control and most dentists tout fluoridation as a method to battle tooth decay and say it is one of the greatest public health achievements in the last 60 years.
But Light said there are a growing number of medical experts concerned that its tooth decay-fighting abilities have been overstated and its health implications not reported.
Research has linked the ingestion of fluoride to cancer and a reduction in brain development in children, she said.
“I want to get rid of it,” Light said. “We don’t need it in our water system.”
Bellows Falls has been adding fluoride to its municipal water system since the mid-1960s, according to Municipal Manager Shane O’Keefe. The Bellows Falls Water District pumps water to the village, Bellows Falls Union High School and parts of Westminster and Rockingham, he said.
Because the water system is incorporated under the village, it would likely be up to the Bellows Falls trustees whether to continue the practice or not. O’Keefe suggested it may come to a nonbonding resolution by voters to direct the trustees’ decision.
The village puts about six 400-pound drums of fluoride into the water system each year, according to Floyd LaFoe, the chief operator of the Bellows Falls Water District. Each drum costs about $400, he said.
LaFoe said he has seen evidence both for and against mixing fluoride into the drinking water, but he intends to stay out of the debate. He said he wants residents and the trustees to come to their own decisions.
“It would be real easy to remove the fluoride from the process,” he said. “All we would have to do is shut down the pump and clean out the barrels.”
A 2001 report by Elise Bassin, then a doctorate student at Harvard University, found that boys who drink fluoridated water have an increased chance of developing a rare form of bone cancer called osteosarcoma.
Anti-fluoride activists have heralded the study after a Harvard professor, who edits a newsletter funded by toothpaste companies, wrongly stated in his research that Bassin’s research showed no link between fluoride and bone cancer.
But Steve Arthur, director of oral health service for the Vermont Department of Health, said that study has not been released to the public nor reviewed by other peers in the industry.
The state still firmly supports fluoride as an effective way to battle tooth decay, Arthur said. The only valid health concern with the additive is fluorosis, a form of tooth decay caused by excessive amounts of fluoride ingestion.
That condition occurs when a child consumes large portions of fluoride, typically by eating toothpaste containing the element. With the low levels of fluoride added to drinking water, it would be impossible for a child to get the condition from tap water.
“The vast bulk of evidence still suggests that it is safe and effective,” he said. “To this date, the CDC and other major health organizations are extremely supportive of fluoridation.”
Light, who was elected to the board of trustees this year, said more than one public forum on fluoridation may be necessary because of the large amount of information and research available.
Votes on the issue in other communities were preceded by months of emotional debate. A measure to add fluoride to the Brattleboro water system was defeated 2,859 to 2,276 five years ago and Bennington voters have rejected a proposal several times, most recently in 2002.
Burlington’s City Council is expected to begin discussing the issue next month after a city health board voted 3 to 2 to reduce the amount of fluoride added to the city’s drinking water.
For many communities, even discussing the topic is like “opening a can of worms,” Light said, and evokes strong opinions from both sides of the issue.
“Adding fluoride is something we’ve always done, and that’s how I think it has been sold to the public,” she said. “But we don’t need it and it may be dangerous.”