The current debate in some communities over fluoridation in water shows that it is far from a settled issue in Vermont.
Last week state officials came to Rutland to respond to a group of citizens calling for an end to fluoridation in that city. And in Bennington, residents will be asked this week to weigh in on whether the municipal water system should be fluoridated.
Those are not the first or last debates to be held on the issue in Vermont.
Fluoride is a substance that occurs naturally in water but health care officials, especially dentists, support adjusting the level so it can protect the teeth of the people drinking the water without rising to an unsafe level.
The U.S. Public Health Service recommends a fluoride level in drinking water of 0.7 to 1.2 milligrams per liter.
However, there are many people who argue passionately against changing the fluoridation level in water. They cite studies they say prove that fluoride can be dangerous and lead to other ailments.
The Department of Health supports fluoridation along with the American Dental Association, the American Medical Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Robin Miller, interim oral health director for the Department of Health, said 57 percent of the state’s population who are served by community water systems have fluoridated water.
While Miller said the state doesn’t advocate to communities that they fluoridate their water, the Health Department is available to provide information. Miller and other state officials will participate in a forum at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Bennington fire facility.
It’s not just in Vermont fluoridation is controversial.
“The general trend in the United States is that more communities are fluoridating; it’s just that there is some misinformation out there that is quite scary and causes people to have concerns,” Miller said.
“That’s OK. It’s important that people feel comfortable with the answers to those concerns and it’s OK to ask questions; it’s just important that you’re going to the right sources for information,” Miller said.
Vaughn Collins, executive director of the Vermont State Dental Society, said it “perplexes” dental professionals why communities would not want to adjust the fluoride in their water systems to recommended levels.
“It makes economic sense; it makes health sense,” he said. “It’s especially important for children who really are the ones at most risk because they’re young and vulnerable and oftentimes don’t have the proper oral health habits. Fluoride helps built stronger teeth as they’re young.”
Collins said the controversy is part of the “double-edged sword” in Vermont where local control and individual opinions receive a lot of respect and consideration.
“You can have a very, very, vocal and very small minority impact the community and that’s what happens, I think, in some of these towns,” he said.
In some communities, fluoridation, even where it exists, has rarely been an issue.
Dr. Richard Venmar, a dentist in Barre, said he believes the water has been fluoridated since he came to the area in 1980.
“I have never heard any controversy related to water fluoridation in communities where it’s already in place,” Venmar said.
“Typically, what you hear about is like (in Bennington,) where there’s the controversy: ‘Do we want it? Do we not want it?’” he said. “From the perspective of a dental health professional, it’s a no-brainer. The communities that have fluoridated water have a lot less dental decay, particularly in children, than the communities that don’t.”
Jeff Strong, Springfield’s director of public works, estimated the water has been fluoridated in that town for at least 40 years. Strong, who has been with the town since 1980, said there’s never been a petition presented to the town about getting rid of the fluoridation.
“I think people are used to it. I think people see the advantages of the fluoride as far as tooth decay and that kind of stuff,” he said.
Other municipalities have seen ongoing issues over fluoridation.
Pro vs. con
Last week, a small number of Rutland city residents approached the city’s Public Works Committee to advocate for removal of fluoridation. They failed to persuade the committee’s members.
The spokeswoman for the group, Kathleen Krevetski, called them “ordinary people using common sense.” She said excessive fluoridation in water has been linked to health problems.
Alderman Gary Donahue, a member of the committee, said fluoride’s benefits outweighed its drawbacks but his objection was the lack of “informed consent” by people drinking it.
Speaking in opposition to the residents’ request to end fluoridation were experts including Health Commissioner Dr. Harry Chen, state toxicologist Sarah Vose and several dentists.
Vose said there was no currently accepted evidence that fluoridation causes negative health effect. She and the dentists made a case for healthier teeth and gums, particularly among children.
Dr. Cheryl Ullman, a dentist who has practiced in both Bennington and Rutland, said tooth decay among children was far worse in Bennington, which lacks fluoridation.
Bradford is an unusual example of a town that has had both circumstances. The Orange County town’s water had been fluoridated for almost 30 years when it was removed by the town’s water and sewer commission in 2012. It was returned after residents voted on the issue the following year.
Dr. Robert Munson, a dentist in Bradford, called it a “little bit of a battle” to have the fluoride restored.
He said it was critical in town because the municipal water serves the public schools.
Munson said the controversy around fluoride shouldn’t be considered proof that it’s not a health benefit.
“In anything, the one who yells the loudest usually gets what they want and the silent majority, most of the time, they just don’t speak up,” he said.
“When you hear some of these things people claim, it gets your attention,” Munson said. “… But one of my favorite things to tell people when I go to one of these fluoride meetings is, ‘You’re all entitled to your own opinions but you’re not entitled to your own facts.’ You can’t make up the facts.”
Munson said the rates of tooth decay in Bradford dropped dramatically over the decades and he attributed much of it to the fluoride in the water.
Quiet in places
In some communities, the issue has been raised but the controversy has faded. Montpelier voters supported continued fluoridation of their water in 2006 by a vote of 1,324 to 802.
Since then, the issue seems quiet, said Montpelier Mayor John Hollar.
“Fluoridation has been proven after decades of research to be a safe and effective way to prevent tooth decay, particularly for children,” Hollar said in an email. “To my knowledge, the issue has not been controversial in Montpelier.”
Some communities have not spent much time on the issue. David Sheldon Jr., water and sewer superintendent for Manchester, said it has been years since the town last considered fluoridating its water.
Sheldon, who has been with the town for more than 30 years, said he has recommended against fluoridating in the past because the information he was seeing at the time warned about the dangers of over-fluoridation.
“We get calls once in a while wanting to know if we fluoridate and I tell them no and they just say, ‘Good,’ and I never hear any more,” Sheldon said. “I get more calls from people concerned that we do than people who want it, to be honest with you. Far greater.”
Ivan Beattie, longtime chairman of the Manchester Select Board, said the question was settled by Select Board members in the past and hasn’t been put before voters.
However, he said he wouldn’t be surprised to see the issue raised again in Manchester because of the discussion happening in the southern part of Bennington County.