METHUEN — When the question is fluoridating public water, no still means no in Methuen.
Voters decided to keep their water fluoride-free in 1981, 1997, and emphatically again yesterday. The referendum on adding fluoride to the water was rejected 56.6 to 43.4 percent, with 7,742 votes against it and 5,939 votes in favor.
“We worked hard and the people of Methuen listened. They did their homework,” said William J. Patenaude, who headed up the anti-fluoride effort of Citizens for Safe Drinking Water. “Nothing belongs in the water.”
The vote ends a five-month saga that saw the Board of Health vote to implement fluoridation, only to have that vote rescinded after Mayor Sharon M. Pollard replaced two of the three board members and fired the health director. Pollard and the town council believe strongly that despite state law giving the Board of Health final authority on the matter, only another referendum should overturn the results of 1981 and 1997, leading to yesterday’s ballot question.
Though it was technically nonbinding, fluoridation opponents and the Board of Health agreed to abide by the outcome. But fluoridation’s lead local supporter, Dr. Joseph G. Kalil, was quick to point out last night that the board still has the autonomy to implement it if it has “the courage” to ignore yesterday’s results.
“Not only in my opinion, but in the opinion of many, this is a public health issue that should never be decided by a referendum. We don’t get referendums on chlorination and pasteurization and many other health measures,” said Kalil, a long-time Methuen dentist who has spent 20 years pushing fluoridation. “I would definitely like to see them go ahead anyway.”
That, however, is unlikely to happen for at least a few years, considering that the current Board of Health consists of only two members — the same two who Pollard appointed to rescind the vote in favor of the referendum. Former chairman Dr. Dante Santone stepped down in September for personal reasons, and has not been replaced.
Fluoridation is endorsed by the world’s mental and dental establishments as a way to aid children’s tooth development and fight tooth decay. But opponents insist it’s a form of mass medication that violates their freedom of choice and can cause long-term health problems.
Kalil had hoped the town’s growing population of families would help swing the vote and that turnout would be boosted by the close vote in 1997, when fluoridation lost by only a few hundred votes. But in the end, he said the opposition’s “scare tactics” — including about 250 signs stating, “If there’s any doubt, leave it out” — were too effective.
“The propaganda was nothing more than misleading statements and mistruths and outright lies that ended up creating enough doubt for some voters,” Kalil said, insisting the mouths of Methuen’s citizens remain worse off than its neighbors. Lawrence, Haverhill, Andover, North Andover, Amesbury, Newburyport and Groveland are among the 135 Massachusetts towns that fluoridate, with most starting in the 1960’s or ’70s.
“I think if the citizens of Methuen want to continue with non-fluoridated water then they will ultimately be paying the price,” Kalil said, “and that price is unfortunately a tragic one, with the communities around us benefitting by 50 percent less tooth decay than citizens in Methuen. And so be it.”
Patenaude said the vote was all about leaving people an option, and they can still get fluoride in their toothpaste or through a prescription from their doctors.
“If people want it, by all means they can still have it — the freedom of choice is still there,” he said. “Everybody wins.”