JOHNSTOWN — Members of the public sounded off Tuesday on the potential toxicity, health benefits and costs associated with keeping fluoride in the water supply.
Approximately 50 area residents attended a public hearing at the Greater Johnstown Water Authority facility in Kernville to speak their mind about the controversial practice. Water authority board members held the hearing, as required by the state Department of Environmental Protection, as the first step in possibly eliminating the practice of fluoridating the water supply.
“Is it an asset? I don’t know,” water authority Chairman Edward Cernic Sr. said.
Removing fluoride from Greater Johnstown’s supply could impact residents of Johnstown, Brownstown, Dale, Ferndale, Lorain, Middle Taylor Township, Stonycreek Township, Westmont, East Conemaugh, Conemaugh Township, Mineral Point, Franklin, Lower Yoder Township, Southmont, Upper Yoder Township and West Taylor Township, as well as Conemaugh Township in Somerset County.
The Conemaugh Township Municipal Authority is one of just a few Somerset County communities that purchase fluoridated water.
“My opinion is we really don’t need (fluoride),” Brian Lawrence, foreman and plant operator for the Conemaugh Township authority, said during a phone interview that took place after the public hearing. “We don’t do it ourselves.”
According to Lawrence, fluoridated water from Greater Johnstown is added to the township’s water supply in a diluted manner. He said the township has never fluoridated its own supply.
“We haven’t heard anything,” he said. “Nobody has called with worries, complaints.”
At the public hearing, however, there were plenty of concerns from residents on both sides of the debate.
Darlene Carstensen, of Oakland, cited studies linking fluoride to iodine deficiencies and thyroid problems.
“We don’t need to keep adding these things to our bodies,” she said.
Willie Davis, of Brownstown, had the same viewpoint, noting that water fluoridation is not practiced — and is in some cases banned — throughout Europe.
“Please don’t insist on poisoning the rest of us,” he said.
Siding with the anti-fluoride crowd and using a more philosophical argument was Joe Taranto, chairman of the Johnstown Housing Authority and a former city councilman. He said he doesn’t think it’s ethical for fluoride — considered a drug by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — to be placed in public water supplies.
“Is it right for our society to medicate our populace without informed consent? I think it’s a great thing, but I don’t think the government should force it on me,” he said.
Taranto added that he doesn’t believe the science has conclusively shown that drinking fluoridated water is harmless over the long term.
“We don’t have all the answers to this,” he said.
Melissa Weyandt, of Somerset Pike, had a similar argument.
“It’s not right for them to tell us, ‘You’re going take this medicine and not have a choice,’” she said.
On the other side was Upper Yoder Township resident Horace Hubbard. He attributed the good dental health of his children and grandchildren to water fluoridation.
“I think it’s a good preventative maintenance. I think fluoride has been an asset,” he said.
Local members of the dental community agreed. Dr. Robert Callahan, of Westmont, said water fluoridation is endorsed by the American Dental Association because of its proven benefits.
“It works, it saves, it’s effective,” he said.
Dr. Scott Little, another area dentist, said he thinks children from poor households see the most benefit from fluoride.
“There will be a real community expense if we no longer fluoridate our water,” he said, noting that other scientific research has found that fluoride is safe to consume at the levels recommended by federal authorities.
Members of the water authority held the public hearing because they are concerned about the continued cost of fluoridation. Cernic said they have had it in the water for approximately 30 years, with the state and federal governments assisting with payments. That ends this year.
He added that the water authority will need to upgrade its infrastructure to keep fluoride in the water supply. Costs are estimated at $400,000 minimum over 10 years.
Cernic said he did not have an accurate guess about how much water bills would increase if they decide to continue fluoridation.
The Greater Johnstown Water Authority is to accept other input and letters from area residents through Tuesday, as required by DEP. Board members are then expected to vote on whether to continue fluoridation or stop the practice later this summer.