NEWBURYPORT — An effort to put a fluoride ban on the November ballot went down the drain at the City Council chamber this week.
The City Council voted 7-3 late Monday night against putting a referendum on the ballot at the next election asking residents if they want fluoride in the water supply, citing it as a matter of public health.
More than 30 people spoke on the issue, including doctors, municipal health officials and residents of Newburyport and other communities such as Gloucester and Rockport that will be voting on whether to continue fluoridation on upcoming ballots. The ratio of proponents to opponents of the measure was about 50/50.
Several times Councilor Barry Connell had to remind attendees to speak on the issue at hand — whether the question belongs on the ballot — and not on the merits of fluoridation itself, which has been in the city’s water since 1969.
Proponents of the measure said that individuals should have the right to choose what they ingest, several suggesting fluoridation violates the federal Clean Water Act, and others mentioning that some people are sensitive or even allergic to fluoride. Others brought up the fact that countries like Denmark and Sweden have banned the substance, and neighboring communities like Amesbury and Methuen have had a chance to vote on the issue.
Opponents said the issue should not even be discussed in a public forum, as it is a matter of public health that should be left to experienced public health officials. They said it wouldn’t be prudent for citizens who have no background in health care to make decisions and that would put children, the elderly, disabled and lower-income families at a disadvantage.
“Public health focuses on populations and people, not on individuals per se, and so public health by nature is not a democratic process,” said Beverly Hines-Lacey, a school nurse at Bresnahan School.
“We have all sorts of policies and laws to protect the public’s health. For example, I have to get a safety inspection on my car, I can’t drink and drive, I can’t smoke in public places, I have to vaccinate my dog against rabies. All of these measures put aside my individual rights to do what I want in the interest of the public’s health.”
The chairman of the board of health, Dr. Robin Blair, advised the council that the Board of Health recommends the measure not be put on the ballot, and presented the council with a petition signed by more than 70 health care professionals in Newburyport supporting fluoridation, as well as a list of state, national and international health agencies and organizations that support fluoride in water.
When it came time for councilors to discuss the measure, Councilor Bruce Vogel was vocal in why it shouldn’t be on the ballot. He said it would be a divisive issue in the city, and that Newbury and West Newbury residents, who receive water from Newburyport, would have no say.
He also took issue with a photo that Councilor Ari Herzog had posted to his blog in January of a sodium fluoride bag received by the Newburyport Water Department with a label stating “Danger! Poison-Toxic By Ingestion” and emblazoned with a skull and crossbones.
“When you have people that are very, very, very passionate about a subject, you tend to go overboard and you tend to use what I would call propaganda. And one of the most disgusting issues of propaganda is putting out this piece of paper that says that this is labeled poison,” Vogel said, holding the photo.
Vogel researched and found out the label is a United Nations shipping label for hazardous material handling, and that it is required because if one were to swallow large amounts of sodium fluoride, one would be poisoned, which holds true for other ingredients and products, like aspirin, he said.
“This is propaganda, and that’s what I’m fearful of,” Vogel said.
The measure had been forwarded by councilors Ari Herzog and Meghan Kinsey, who voted yes along with Larry Giunta. Against the measure were Allison Heartquist, Vogel, Jared Eigerman, Ed Cameron, Bob Cronin, Charlie Tontar and Connell. Councilor Tom O’Brien was absent.
Though the council voted not to place the measure on the November ballot, councilors Cameron and Eigerman urged that they are not taking away the right to vote on the matter. They noted that people against fluoride can gather signatures of 12 percent of registered voters on a petition to put the issue on the ballot.