Incident involving mislabeled acid prompts urge to discontinue use
Fluoride will remain in the city of New Baltimore’s drinking water supply following a recent vote by the city council.
Council members voted 4-2 Jan. 10 to deny a recommendation from the public utilities, roads & bridges committee to discontinue the use of hydrofluosilicic acid, or fluoride, which is used to help prevent tooth decay. The recommendation was made by New Baltimore Water Department Superintendent Chris Hiltunen after four drums of sulfuric acid mislabeled by the supplier as hydrofluosilicic acid were nearly added to the city’s drinking water in July 2021.
“The thing that brought this to light was the incident that did happen on July 11; it has nothing to do with the qualification of my employees,” Hiltunen said at the recent meeting.
Community water fluoridation prevents 25% of tooth decay for all age groups, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The city council voted in 1995 to add fluoride to the drinking water, Hiltunen said.
“Do I think fluoride is beneficial? I do. I don’t disagree with that. I think the way we apply fluoride is a waste. Toothpaste, dental hygiene — that’s where fluoride is applied, and that’s where it’s beneficial,” he added.
Hiltunen said he recommended discontinuing the use of fluoride for two main reasons: safety and cost. He described hydrofluosilicic acid as the most caustic, aggressive chemical that the water department has to handle.
“The water treatment plant is a beautiful facility the city had finished building in 2008,” he said. “We maintain it immaculately. There is one room that you cannot maintain. It’s the fluoride room.”
Regarding cost, Hiltunen said of the $5,500 the city spends annually on the purchase of fluoride and maintenance of the fluoride feed system and equipment, $38 at most is used to deliver fluoride to residents.
“If we were to take into consideration that the recommended daily water intake is a half a gallon per person and the estimated population of 14,000 residents, that would equate to approximately 7,000 gallons of water a day were ingested,” he said in a memo to city officials. “This assumes that all residents actually drink a half a gallon of water a day and not through a home filter. The remaining water is used for washing, watering lawns, flushing toilets, etc. The average daily flow for the city is 900,000 gallons a day. Meaning that best case scenario .7% of all water treated is ingested.”
Council member Florence Hayman, who made the motion to deny the recommendation to discontinue the use of fluoride, pointed to the benefits of water fluoridation in helping to prevent tooth decay.
“Research has shown that you cannot replicate by flossing and brushing the use of fluoride in the water,” Hayman said.
“I understand that Chris was concerned about his workers, and I appreciate his concern for his workers, but I do believe that because they’re qualified that they should be able to take care of this,” she added.
Mayor Pro-Tem David Duffy and council member Laura Szymanski cast the two dissenting votes. Both pointed to the safety issue, as well as increased access to fluoride throughout the years.
“We have toothpaste. We have mouthwash. We have so many avenues for fluoride in our daily lives nowadays,” Duffy said. “And there’s a dentist on every other corner.”
“And I just don’t like to see government putting things in the water, government overreaching,” he added.
On July 11, 2021, an operator at the water treatment plant was transferring hydrofluosilicic acid from a 55-gallon drum into the chemical feed tank when a severe chemical reaction occurred. After isolating the tank and securing the room, it was discovered that the company providing the chemical had shipped four drums of sulfuric acid, a corrosive substance that is destructive to the skin, eyes, teeth and lungs, mislabeled as hydrofluosilicic acid to the city.
“If that acid would have got into the system … it could have been catastrophic health wise, and operationally it could have been catastrophic,” Hiltunen said.
Fluoride has not be added to the drinking water supply since the incident due to infrastructure damage to the chemical feed tank and piping caused by the sulfuric acid. Hiltunen said a tank was ordered following the incident but has not yet been delivered.
Katelyn Larese is a Local News Editor at The Voice.