NEW BEDFORD — Voters approved fluoridation of the municipal water supply in yesterday’s election, giving proponents a victory they never expected after abject defeats of similar measures in Worcester and Springfield.
The hotly debated ballot question passed 10,893 to 9,638.
At the headquarters of the anti-poverty agency PACE Inc., about a dozen supporters who were gathered around a radio cheered when they learned that Precinct 4B had gone their way. When told they had won the whole city, they erupted in celebration and popped champagne over a decision they felt could easily have gone to the opposition.
PACE director Bruce Morrell toasted the gathering, saying, “People today won’t realize what we’ve done today to save their teeth.” He repeatedly expressed his astonishment at the outcome, given that Worcester voters recently rejected fluoridation by a 2-1 margin after a half-million dollars was spent by opponents.
Mayor Scott W. Lang, whose opposition to fluoridation prompted the City Council to send the measure to a popular vote, told The Standard-Times, “I’m an opponent to adding fluoride but a very strong supporter of the idea that people should make this decision.
“It shouldn’t be left to the Board of Health with a very few people in attendance. Twenty thousand people participated in this vote, and I’m certainly going to support that.”
Mayor Lang moved to fire the city’s health director, Robert Davis, in the aftermath of the fluoride decision. Mr. Davis remains on the job at the insistence of the Board of Health, which appoints the director under state law. Mr. Davis could not be reached for comment last night.
After a 2005 decision by the Board of Health, the city purchased the equipment necessary to begin treating the water supply with fluoride to reduce tooth decay. Mayor Lang said he believed the process could begin very quickly since everything is in place.
He added, however, that he wants to see various groups including the Greater New Bedford Community Health Center organize a dental health campaign. “Adding fluoride to the water is one small part of adolescent and youth dental hygiene,” he said.
Only 13,000 people in the city are in the age group between six months and 12 years when fluoridation is effective against tooth decay, he said. “That means 87,000 people don’t benefit.
“Fluoride knocks down about one-third of the dental health problems. That means two-thirds needs to get attention. This is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said.
Such measures as ridding school cafeterias of soda must continue, he said.
Fluoridation has been a much-debated subject since it began around World War II following the discovery that fluoride hardened teeth and prevented cavities. While a majority of public water supplies in America have been fluoridated, those in Europe generally are not.
New Bedford was a holdout until 1977, when fluoride was briefly introduced, only to be shot down by referendum a year later. The issue languished until early 2005 when the Board of Health voted to go ahead and obtain state permission.
That was under Mayor Frederick M. Kalisz, Jr.; incoming Mayor Lang put the brakes on the plan just before it was to be implemented, took a few months to study it, and declared his opposition on the grounds that the risks outweigh the benefits.
Dental health experts and proponents have pushed hard in recent weeks in letters to the editor, and PACE gathered a handful of volunteers to hold signs. Opponents won the backing of the selectmen in the three neighboring towns that obtain some water from New Bedford: Acushnet, Fairhaven and Dartmouth.
Last night, Acushnet Selectman David Wojnar said he was “extremely disappointed” with the vote. “This is a case of fluoridation without representation,” he said. “The largest customer of New Bedford’s water had no say in the outcome.”