Public health officials who refuse to share a stage with opponents of water fluoridation have no business deciding matters of public health, a New York chemistry professor told 115 Utahns at anti-fluoride forums Saturday.

The forums, in Salt Lake City and Woods Cross, had been billed as debates. But proponents refused to appear with Paul Connell (sic) of St. Lawrence University of Canton, N.Y., and organizers instead used empty chairs labeled with proponents’ names.

“As a scientist, I am appalled,” said Connell. “If you are not interested in debating a major public health issue, then you are obviously not up to the job of defending your public policies.”

“It would be a travesty for science and democracy if we got to election time . . . and the people of Salt Lake and Davis counties have heard only one side.”

Voters in Salt Lake and Davis counties and in Logan will decide Nov. 7 whether to add cavity-fighting fluoride to the water supply. Residents offour Cache County communities — Smithfield, Providence, Nibley and Hyrum — will cast non-binding votes on the same issue.

Proponents, including dentists, doctors and public health agency officials, insist that 50 years of research show the benefits of community fluoridation. They don’t want to debate opponents because doing so lends credibility to baseless claims, they say.

Connell, for instance, is not a published researcher on fluoride but rather an anti-incinerator activist, they say. Utah’s leading proponents, likewise, have not personally done scientific research on the topic.

Connell said there is growing evidence that fluoridation is neither necessary nor healthy, but that the medical establishment and U.S. government “studiously ignore” it because they do not want to admit their error.

He likened fluoride to lead, benzene or dioxin, which the government and industry refused to recognize as dangerous for years, he said. “The government got it wrong,” Connell said.

Dentists and doctors are not taking the time to independently research the issue, but instead are relying on what they learn in college, from the government and from medical associations, he said. “All they are doing is giving a rubber stamp to higher authority. I think they’ve been essentially brainwashed to go along.”

Connell argued that community water fluoridation fails on three points: It could be causing hip fractures, kidney damage and early onset of puberty; it does not provide enough benefits, and there are alternatives, such as fluoride mouth rinses.

He acknowledged that the research connecting fluoride to poor health is not definitive.

“You have to respect any evidence which suggests you have a problem,” he said. “By the time scientists prove beyond a shadow of a doubt there is a problem, it will be too late. You need to apply the precautionary principle.”

It may be true that there has been a decline in dental decay in the five decades since community fluoridation began in this country, he said.

But Connell argued that the same decline in decay can be found in countries that do not add fluoride to their water. Other factors, such as better nutrition and safer food supplies, may also be the cause.

Connell was joined at a news conference before the forums by individuals and groups that oppose the November ballot measures.

Marc Flack, a Salt Lake City dentist, challenged others in his profession “to study the issue on the merits of science and not just blindly follow the dogma of the professional trade unions.”

Rae Howard, president of Health Forum of Utah, claimed that water fluoridation makes it impossible to control the dosage of fluoride.

Janeen Carter, reading a statement for Utah Eagle Forum, said, “Fluoridation is not really about children or health. It’s about freedom. Does the government have the right to medicate the public water supply, or should the administration of fluoride remain a parental responsibility and personal choice?”