Water fluoridation is, depending on who is speaking, a safe and effective public health measure that reduces tooth decay, or an unsafe form of mandatory medication based on outdated science.
The two-hour fluoridation debate Wednesday night before a standing-room-only audience was a clash of true believers for and against fluoridation. The Burlington Board of Health held the session in City Hall.
Pediatrician Donald Swartz and dentist and public health specialist Steve Arthur, both from the state Department of Health, told the five-member board that water fluoridation, a 53-year practice in Burlington, does its job without any risk to the public. The health department emphatically supports fluoridation and points to support for the practice by national professional medical organizations, the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control.
Arthur called water fluoridation a “hugely successful” public health practice. “If we seriously believed there was a health risk,” he said, “we wouldn’t preserve it. The health department gets nothing out of it.”
Michael Connett of the Fluoride Action Network, a Burlington-based antifluoridation group, and William Hirzy, a senior scientist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, argued against fluoridation. They told the board that recent scientific research makes clear that ingesting fluoride in water is less effective in preventing tooth decay than topical applications through fluoride toothpaste and mouth rinses.
Hirzy said a clear link between water fluoridation and bone cancer in young boys was established in a 2001 Harvard University doctoral dissertation. He was speaking for the EPA’s labor union of scientists and professionals at EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C.
“This is not a good way of delivering medicine,” Connett said. He disputed the effectiveness of water fluoridation, noting that “98 percent of Western Europeans drink un- fluoridated water” but those countries have nevertheless seen declines in tooth decay over the past half century equivalent to those in countries with fluoridation such as the United States.
The Board of Health, which plans to make a recommendation to the City Council to continue, to modify or discontinue fluoridation, will host a public comment session June 23 then discuss the issue June 29 before passing its conclusions to the council.
Several councilors were present Wednesday in the generally attentive crowd to listen to a debate that allowed the experts on each side tw[enty] minutes to present their case and 10 minutes for rebuttal. After the first hour, the public had a chance to pass written questions to the moderator, who read them to the experts.
The City Council has taken up the question of fluoridation previously. Councilor Cheryl McDonough, P-Ward 2, sponsored a resolution in 2003 to look at whether fluoridation should continue in the city, but she said “it went nowhere.”
McDonough said she isn’t firmly against fluoridation but “I am adamant about having a fair and open discussion,” she said.
As the debate came to an end, dental hygienist Dana Liberty said she appreciated the low-key and professional presentations by both sides. “It was great,” she said. She said she remains supportive of fluoridation.
“I’m not ready to say, ‘Stop it,'” she said. “More research needs to be done.”
Melissa Hart, a graduate student in English, said she hasn’t decided whether fluoridation is good or bad.
“I think there are valid arguments and concerns on both sides,” she said.
Asked how she would vote if she were a member of the Board of Health, she shook her head.
“It’s really hard,” she said, “but it’s better to err on the side of caution.”
If the Board of Health ultimately recommends that fluoridation be ended, its position will have one firm opponent in City Hall.
“I’m not among those advocating for an end to the practice of fluoridation of our water,” Mayor Peter Clavelle said, “but I’m also respectful of those who have a difference of opinion.”
Burlington has fluoridated its water supply since 1952