The state Department of Public Health fluoridated the water at the Wrentham and Belchertown state schools for the mentally retarded in 1947 – four years before a US public health recommendation and a state law allowing local communities to fluoridate.
In the wake of other experiments at the state schools that apparently were conducted without the consent of the residents, state health officials said they fear the fluoridation decision also may have been made without informed consent.
In an interview Thursday, state public health commissioner David Mulligan said his office will investigate whether residents or employees of the facilities were properly informed of the fluoridation, which was designed to prevent cavities. It could not be determined whether the fluoridation of the two schools’ water supplies was reported in the press at the time.
In the 1940s, fears about fluorine and its effects were high, even though years of epidemiological studies of communities with naturally fluoridated water had found the substance safe and effective in reducing tooth decay at 1 part per million. Some people remain concerned about the compound today, but in recent decades, studies have shown that it is safe and effective. Millions of people now drink fluoridated water.
In a 1945 report to the state Legislature, the public health department recommended that a study of fluoridation be conducted at some of the state institutions, possibly the schools for the mentally retarded, with one school not receiving the substance to serve as a control. By then, about 60 communities nationwide had begun fluoridation.
In 1947, Wrentham and Belchertown received 1 part per million of fluorine, still the recommended amount, while Fernald did not. Anyone who drank the water at Wrentham or Belchertown – employee, visitor or resident – would have been exposed.
Florence Bingham, a trustee of the Wrentham school at the time, testified before Congress in 1954 that she had not been told of the fluoridation and was outraged. “The shroud of secrecy was terrifying to me, especially when it cloaked up an experiment upon feeble-minded wards of the state who should have been treated with more scrupulous care,” Bingham testified.
Public health officials this week drew a distinction between researchers’ use of radioactive isotopes to study children’s digestive systems in the 1940s and ’50s, which could not in any way benefit residents, and adding what was believed to be safe levels of fluorine to the schools’ water to reduce tooth decay.