With Schuylkill Haven Borough Council’s decision last week to stop adding fluoride to its drinking water, municipal water fluoridation may soon be a thing of the past in Schuylkill County.

The borough’s water authority was the only one in Schuylkill County to add fluoride to its water, according to a list compiled by ActionPA, a Philadelphia-based environmental research and community support group.

Dr. Brenda Jenkins, a Pottsville dentist, said she was disappointed to hear of Schuylkill Haven’s decision, particularly because Schuylkill County is below the state average in terms of low-income residents getting access to both routine and preventative dental care.

“I can tell you that what’s going to happen down the road,” Jenkins said. “A decade or two from now, the kids are going to lose the benefit of fluoridated water, and they’ll have a higher (tooth decay) rate.”

Jenkins said she has been practicing in Schuylkill County for more than 20 years. She said she hasn’t done any official studies, but anecdotally, young Schuylkill Haven residents seem to experience less tooth decay.

Whether fluoridated water is a benefit to dental health is a sometimes-contentious issue. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates fluoride in drinking water, allowing 4 milligram per liter as a maximum level.

When fluoride is consumed in excess of maximum contaminant levels, the EPA acknowledges possible negative health effects, including bone disease or mottled teeth in children.

Carol Kopf, Levittown, N.Y., a media officer with the Fluoride Action Network, said the group wants to see an end to the use of fluoride worldwide, and does not believe it prevents tooth decay.

“There’s nothing on the face of the earth that can’t be harmful to somebody – milk, peanuts, healthy things that people are allergic or intolerant to,” Kopf said. “There are people who are allergic or intolerant to fluoride, and (we oppose) putting it into the water supply where its impossible to avoid.”

Those who have spoken out against the use of fluoride in drinking water supplies include the EPA’s trade union, as well as Arvid Carlsson, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2000.

“Often we’re dismissed as junk science,” Kopf said. “It is not junk science.”

Jenkins acknowledged the argument against fluoridation – “too much of anything can be harmful” – but pointed to the American Dental Association’s and American Medical Association’s continued endorsements of the practice.

Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Mark Carmon said the decision about whether to add fluoride to water is usually left up to the local water authority.

Most of the state’s larger municipal authorities – such as Allentown, Bethlehem and Hazleton in this region – add fluoride, Carmon said.

When the Schuylkill County Municipal Authority was considering adding fluoride to its water in the early ’70s, general manager David J. Holley said it was put on the ballot where customers voted not to add the chemical.

Kopf said there are some dentists within the network who have more faith in the topical use of fluoride directly on teeth, such as in dental treatments. Although the group does not support any fluoride use, Kopf said such applications fall into the realm of personal choice.

As for Schuylkill Haven, Carmon said the borough must amend its permit with the DEP and issue public notices about the change in service before it can stop adding fluoride to its water. The notice must be published in the affected service area 30 days prior to the discontinuance of fluoridation.

Further reading

For more information on the water fluoridation debate, consider reading “The Fluoride Wars: How a Modest Public Health Measure Became America’s Longest Running Political Melodrama,” by R. Allan Freeze and Jay H. Lehr, published by John Wiley & Sons, 2009.