Burlington voters will decide March 7 whether they want the city water supply to be fluoridated, as it has been for more than 50 years.

Fluoride is added to public water supplies in the United States to reduce tooth decay.

The issue, debated before the Board of Health and the City Council last spring and summer, will appear on the ballot as one of several advisory items. The question reads, “Shall the city discontinue the practice of fluoridating the public water supply?”

The council is free to disregard an advisory item. Steve Arthur, director of the state Health Department’s Office of Oral Health, said Tuesday that the city’s legislative body, not the voters, should make the decision about fluoridation.

“I think the question of fluoridation of Burlington’s municipal water supply is most appropriately decided at the City Council, as the councilors are the representatives of the residents of Burlington, and are elected to decide such matters,” Arthur wrote in an e-mail to The Burlington Free Press. “In this particular case, the City Council voted to continue fluoridation last year.”

In late September, the council voted 7-4 to reduce the amount of fluoride in the water supply to the minimum level recommended by state and national authorities.

Their resolution watered down a suggestion from the city’s Board of Health. The board voted 3-2 after public hearings to continue fluoridating the water supply but called fluoride “a significant health risk” to infants and urged that infants up to 6 months old should receive no fluoride.

Arthur said the state Health Department will be involved in the city debate in the weeks ahead.

“I understand and appreciate any citizen’s right to place an item on the ballot for Town Meeting Day if the appropriate number of signatures are obtained,” he wrote. “In the coming weeks, the Vermont Department of Health will provide considerable information to Burlington residents regarding the many benefits of community water fluoridation.”

Safe Water Advocates of Burlington, known as SWAB, gathered approximately 1,250 signatures over the last several months to put the question before city voters.

Jo LaMarche, the city’s director of elections, said the signatures, 5 percent of the registered voters in the city, have been validated by her office.

Owen Mulligan, campaign manager of the petition drive group, said in a news release Tuesday that the group will conduct a “grass-roots, citywide campaign” in the coming weeks “to make the cons of water fluoridation known to as many voters as possible.”

Group spokesman Michael Connett, who also is project director for the Burlington-based Fluoride Action Network, said Tuesday that the vote March 7 will give Burlington residents a chance to express their opposition to an “ineffective and outdated form of mandatory medication.” He said a number of health risks have been associated with the ingestion of fluoride. His group agrees that fluoride helps prevent tooth decay but argues that it can be applied more safely topically, as with fluoridated toothpaste, which didn’t exist in the early 1950s.

“If people vote ‘yes,'” he said, “I couldn’t see the council ignoring it. I would expect fluoridation to end by the end of the year. And if Burlington acted — the largest city in Vermont — it will raise the consciousness of many communities in Vermont and maybe set the ground for a statewide ban.”

He said approximately 40 percent of Vermonters drink publicly fluoridated water.

Arthur said that an end to fluoridation in Burlington would take away a “primary means of preventing tooth decay.”

The Health Department, he said, along with “over 160 major health and health research organizations,” strongly supports fluoridation. The Health Department, he said, doesn’t regard it as medication.

“I look at it as another way to prevent disease,” he said, “as you do when you chlorinate the water supply.”