HOLYOKE – Three ways exist for the city to stop fluoridation of public water and none appears easy or imminent, city councilors learned Tuesday (April 1).
Two health officials told the Public Safety Committee at City Hall water fluoridation’s benefits outweigh any negatives.
According to city staff attorney William Newcomb:
–The city Board of Health can be asked to lift the 1970 requirement that water be treated with fluoride to promote dental health;
— the city can seek special legislation to stop fluoridation;
–10 percent of registered voters can petition for a binding ballot question to be held, but that option is available only upon an order to increase the amount of fluoride in the water supply and the petition must be filed within 90 days of the publication of such an order.
Holyoke Water Works officials said there were no plans to increase fluoridation and, in fact, said Public Safety Committee member Daniel B. Bresnahan, some officials statewide have discussed reducing fluoride levels.
The presence of fluoride — a form of the element fluorine, which occurs naturally in the environment — to promote dental health has spawned decades of passionate, often-accusatory debate here, nationwide and around the world.
Supporters say adding fluoride to the water supply has succeeded for decades in improving dental health. That’s true especially in a poor community like this one, with nearly 32 percent of the population living in poverty and fluoridated water perhaps the only dental treatment for many children, they said.
But opponents say that chemicals used in fluoridation can be harmful and studies that deemed fluoride safe must be revisited. Also, they said, having the government treat the public water infringes on an individual’s right to decide what to ingest.
Water fluoridation is an item on the Board of Health agenda April 9, Health Department Director Brian Fitzgerald said, but there was no indication the board intended to vote to end the program.
Committee member James M. Leahy asked David M. Conti, Holyoke Water Works manager, and the Water Commission to discuss fluoride in municipal drinking water.
Leahy filed the order after city resident Kirstin Beatty questioned whether the use of fluoride is healthy or toxic in the public speak out period of the Feb. 17 council meeting. Beatty showed up at Tuesday’s meeting more than an hour after the committee finished discussing fluoride.
The committee tabled consideration of the fluoride issue in light of the upcoming Board of Health meeting and councilors needing time to read information packets received just before the meeting, Chairwoman Linda L. Vacon said.,
Leahy said his order’s intent was to get information about fluoridation.
“I don’t have a dog in this race, whether there’s fluoride in the water or there’s not fluoride in the water,” Leahy said.
It costs $30,000 a year to fluoridate public drinking water, Conti said.
Water Commission member Mark Naidorf noted the fluoridating city water was a Board of Health decision in 1970.
“So you can override that?” Leahy said,.
“We cannot override the Board of Health,” Naidorf said.
Leahy asked about concerns he has heard from people since he filed the order such as a possible connection between fluoride and arthritis. Conti said he wasn’t qualified to discuss such health issues.
Since the meeting wasn’t scheduled as a public hearing, the committee voted to let two medical professionals make remarks.
E. Jane Crocker, president of the American Dental Hygienists Association of Massachusetts, said fluoridated water was important and cost-effective.
“It’s not only safe, but it has been shown to promote dental health,” Crocker said.
A lot of information about fluoride is on the internet and much of it is unreliable, she said,.
“They use a lot of sensationalism and scare tactics. Be careful what you read,” Crocker said.
Dr. Robert Abrams, a longtime pediatrician here, said the benefits of fluoride outweigh the negatives despite the craziness available for reading on the internet.
“I’m so glad you gave me the opportunity,” Abrams told the Public Safety Committee.
Naidford said another issue is that fluoridation prevents the city from selling its large water supply in bottled form.
“Having the fluoride is always brought up as one of the barriers,” Naidorf said.
A MassLive.com reader who was following the live-reporting of the meeting asked if a homeowner can opt out of getting fluoridated water.
The question was put to Conti, who said the answer was no. A home that is in an area with lines that provide the public water supply must use the public water. Such homeowners even are prohibited from digging their own water well and opting out of the public water supply, he said.
Leaving the meeting, Abrams joked to Conti of the fluoride debate, “This will never end, will it?”
“No, it won’t,” Conti said.