While the rest of the world is fretting about electromagnetic waves, genetically modified food and other perceived health threats associated with contemporary living, the town of Bradford, Vt., has taken a step back in time by rekindling a public health debate that we thought had been settled long ago — whether fluoride should be added to the municipal water supply to combat tooth decay. As much as we admire quaintness and those who must be dragged kicking and screaming into the modern world, Bradford should move quickly to quell this non-controversy.
It was the Bradford Water and Sewer Commission that decided to turn back the time machine by voting in October to permanently discontinue the decades-old practice of adding fluoride to town water. Commissioners, who voted 4-0 to make the change, cited financial and health reasons for their decision. The district had built a new pumphouse and fitting it out for fluoridation would have cost additional money, as would the continuing purchase of fluoride. And they had concerns about whether fluoridation might pose health risks.
To whatever extent the budgetary reservations were legitimate — and it’s hard to believe that the cost of rigging up the new pumphouse for continued fluoridation would be prohibitive — they no longer are. State public health officials have pledged to cover the bill for the fluoridation equipment. And the cost of buying fluoride is trivial — estimated at $1,200 annually.
To better understand the commissioners’ health concerns, it’s worth noting that when they voted to discontinue fluoridation, they had heard from an out-of-town anti-fluoridation activist, but had failed to consult local dentists, public health authorities or the Selectboard. Considering that their decision affects the oral health of between 1,500 and 2,000 people, including schoolchildren, their initial lack of interest in seeking out informed opinion was irresponsible.
On the other hand, the commissioners deserve credit for reconsidering the decision after a mailed notice about the change prompted an outcry, most notably from Bradford dentist Robert Munson. That people would be upset is understandable. Although some Americans remain convinced that fluoridated water poses a health risk and/or unwarranted government interference in what should be a matter of individual choice, those people are a distinct minority and, more important, their opinion lies outside the scientific consensus. Here’s what the Centers for Disease Control have to say: “For 65 years, community water fluoridation has been a safe and healthy way to effectively prevent tooth decay. CDC has recognized water fluoridation as one of 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century.”
That there are people who firmly, even passionately, dispute the scientific consensus on the benefits of fluoridation should not be surprising: There are few widely accepted public health practices that haven’t engendered a community of skeptics. And sometimes scientific consensus is proven wrong. But until the skeptics present a persuasive case, the vast majority have every right to implement practices that experts believe will promote public health. Dissenters can opt out by buying bottled water. In this case, leaving the decision about whether to use fluoride up to individuals makes no sense. Too many children would suffer tooth decay because their families lacked the resources, information or skills to act on sound advice.
This is an easy call, and we can only assume that the commissioners will reverse themselves at their Dec. 11 meeting so the people of Bradford can focus their attention on more contemporary ill-founded fears.