Fluoride could be added to Erie’s public water supply by early 2002 under a controversial plan that had majority support from Erie City Council as of Thursday.
Councilman Rick Filippi has proposed a resolution for Wednesday night’s council meeting that asks the Erie City Water Authority to modify the water treatment system to allow for the addition of fluoride, a naturally occurring element aimed at preventing tooth decay.
Water Authority Executive Director Jim Rudy said if the resolution receives City Council approval Wednesday, he expects the Water Authority to approve the plan on Thursday. The authority would then move forward with adding equipment to fluoridate the water system – which serves more than 52,000 homes and businesses in Erie and the suburbs – by late winter or early spring 2002.
The Water Authority supplies water to all city of Erie residents and those living in parts of Wesleyville, Harborcreek, Lawrence Park, Millcreek and Summit townships. Bulk water also is sold to Summit and Millcreek townships. Millcreek also distributes bulk water to customers in some parts of Fairview.
Startup costs are estimated at $500,000, with annual fluoride costs of about $70,000, said Rudy. A rate increase would not be needed, and the cost to the average residential customer would be about $1 a year, he said.
Fluoridation does not affect the taste or smell of the water, Rudy said.
Passage of the proposal would end more than three decades of successful efforts by vocal opponents to keep fluoride out of Erie’s water supply. Filippi said opponents have used “blatant lies” to generate fear about fluoridation.
“It’s not a campaign issue of mine, but it is consistent with my vision of Erie being a progressive city,” said Filippi, the Democratic nominee for Erie mayor. “Erie is one of the few places in Pennsylvania that has not done this. North East has fluoride in the water, and Edinboro fluoridated not too long ago. I don’t see any problems in those places with the so-called rat-poison effect.”
Meanwhile, Councilman Mario Bagnoni said fluoride in Erie’s water threatens the health of local citizens, particularly older people.
“We don’t need another chemical in the water – basically it’s rat poison,” said Bagnoni. “It has a direct effect on elderly people by damaging their bones.”
Through the years fluoride opponents have claimed that adding it to water supplies increases the risk of health problems ranging from more tooth decay to thyroid-related diseases.
Many local dentists counter that scientific research has indicated there are no ill health effects from adding fluoride to the water supply. Neil Gardner, D.D.S., public health dentist for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, said fluoride has been tested repeatedly and found to be safe when used as recommended.
“These people are looking for reasons not to do it,” Gardner said. “The fact is, there is nothing but bizarre quack complaints. It makes you wonder. These people don’t have qualifications like the (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), which again recommended Aug. 17 that every community fluoridate its water.”
The efforts by dentists and fluoride supporters have been bolstered by a recent University of Pittsburgh study that found children in northwestern Pennsylvania have more tooth decay and untreated tooth decay than children statewide – a fact health officials attribute in part to unfluoridated water in some parts of the region.
On next council agenda
An overflow crowd is expected in Council Chambers at Erie City Hall Wednesday night as advocates and opponents lobby council members prior to an expected vote. Scores of dentists from Erie County and supporters carrying signs are expected to speak in favor of fluoridation. Bagnoni said opponents will bring petitions with “10,000 names” of people who do not want fluoride added to the water.
As of Thursday, four council members said they favored fluoridation. Supporting Filippi’s resolution were Councilmen Joe Borgia, Larry Meredith and Melvin Witherspoon. “I’m 70 percent yea, 30 percent nay at this point,” said Witherspoon. “It’s for the children of this community. It’s not going to help me or my grandma. If I had to vote today, right now, I would have to say yes.”
Bagnoni and Councilman Chris Maras oppose the resolution. Both say fluoridation would be costly and that it is better to administer fluoride tablets to children than to add it to the entire water supply. Maras said a public hearing should be held prior to any vote on fluoridation.
“My two sons have grown up, took fluoride pills, and they both have excellent teeth,” said Maras. “I believe tablets could be made available through the schools, gearing toward the percentage of the population that would benefit from fluoride.”
Erie Superintendent of Schools James Barker said fluoride tablets are now distributed to students who have parental permission. Barker added that he supports fluoridation of the public water supply.
“This is particularly critical for those students who cannot afford the high cost of dental care,” said Barker. “I think Mr. Filippi is showing the type of leadership of weighing the evidence and making decisions based on best interest of the community. I think that’s a positive move for the city.”
Councilwoman Rubye Jenkins-Husband remained undecided as of Thursday. However, Jenkins-Husband said she is investigating state grants that might be available to help pay for the fluoridation equipment if the plan does move forward.
“I’m still looking over the information and materials,” said Jenkins-Husband. “Right now I am deep into reading about the issue.”
Next week’s vote on fluoridation is a product of several months of quiet but intense lobbying of council members by local community leaders, dentists and health officials who make up an organization called Citizens for Better Dental Health. The committee is co-chaired by former state Sen. William Sesler, who became frustrated by the repeated victories of fluoride opponents.
“I told the dentists, you don’t have a scientific problem, you have a political problem,” said Sesler.
Sesler said timing has been a key aspect of the lobbying effort. City Council recently renewed a lease with the Water Authority – an issue that could have complicated a fluoridation effort if left unresolved.
Joseph Kohler, D.D.S., incoming president of the Erie County Dental Society, said he and other dentists realize the timing is right to gain approval of water fluoridation – before new council members assume their posts in January.
“We need to get it passed before the Three Amigos come in” said Kohler, referring to Bagnoni and former councilmen James Thompson and James Casey. “They will never approve fluoridation. If it doesn’t happen now, we’ve lost a golden opportunity.”
Filippi said he is confident that, if approved Wednesday, fluoridation will not be repealed after the new council is sworn in.
“In government you typically don’t overturn decisions of previously elected bodies,” said Filippi. “There has to be some stability in the law.”