Local officials might hold widely differing views on the merits of fluoridation, but most say they oppose legislation that would require Massachusetts cities and towns to add the cavity-fighting compound to public water supplies.
“I’m against mandating that on communities,” said state Rep. Betty Poirier, R-North Attleboro. “They all have a board of health in place to determine what is appropriate.”
The controversy over fluoride is not new. In Plainville and North Attleboro, the issue has been a point of contention for years.
Plainville gets part of its water from the North Attleboro treatment plant.
North Attleboro residents voted five years ago to add fluoride to the town’s drinking water.
Plainville residents later voted against fluoridation, but have been unable to remove it from water the town receives from North Attleboro.
As it now stands, fluoride is added to the water supply, but not without the North Attleboro board of health putting up a fight.
The board of health earlier this year ordered the Department of Public Works to stop adding fluoride to the water, and is mounting a court challenge to end fluoridation.
North Attleboro Board of Health Chairwoman Diane Battistello says the decision is in the best interest of the town.
“We think that the board of health has the right to do this,” Battistello said.
She says that with controversial new reports linking fluoride to bone cancer, North Attleboro residents might vote differently if they had another chance.
“That’s why they keep voting anti-fluoride activists onto the board of health,” she said.
Battistello said the board of health will deal with the proposed legislation when it comes to a vote.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” she said.
The proposed legislation would mandate fluoridation of the public water supply in communities with 5,000 or more residents.
North Attleboro selectman Chairman John Rhyne says if the local board of health believes people have changed their minds about fluoride, the question should be put on the ballot in April.
He said despite the disagreement, the decision to add fluoride to the water should remain a local issue.
“It should be what the people in North Attleboro want. That, to me, is the way democracy works,” Rhyne said.
Donald Bates, the only member of the North Attleboro board of health who voted to keep fluoride in the water, thinks that no matter what the outcome, the state shouldn’t be involved.
“I happen to believe fluoride is a good thing,” Bates said. “But it’s up to each town to make that decision.”
Up to towns
State Rep. Richard Ross, R-Wrentham, whose district includes Plainville, also says the decision should be up to each town, especially since his constituents voted against fluoride.
“My preference in life is not to add anything to clean drinking water,” Ross said.
He said if the proposed legislation comes to a vote, he’ll probably vote against it.
State Rep. Kathy Teahan, D-Whitman, chief sponsor of the bill, says the state should make the decision because local boards of health might not have the time or expertise to properly look into the effects of fluoride.
“I’ve been involved in public health and oral health for nine years,” said Teahan, who is also chairwoman of the Massachusetts Oral Health Caucus.
Teahan said there is a health crisis for those who can’t afford good dental care.
“Fluoride has been proven to prevent at least 50 percent of oral infections and tooth decay,” she said. “Fluoride is the least expensive way to provide people with dental care.”
Teahan says that by introducing the mandate, the state can remove local politics from the decision.
She said that though she feels the issue is important, the bill has been set aside until next year because of a lack of time, funding and ongoing concerns about the potential side-effects of fluoridation.
If the mandate goes into effect, Teahan said it should be funded by the state.
“To make cities and towns pay for yet another thing doesn’t make sense,” she said.
In the meantime, the Public Health Committee and the Children’s Caucus will be researching the controversial issue.
“There are still so many people with questions,” Teahan said.