Local advocates for and against water fluoridation teamed up with well-known experts from the international fluoridation debate scene in a confrontation before a standing-room only audience Thursday evening at the Lew Davies Community Center. The battle pitted fears of dangerous health consequences against warm reassurances of a well-tested and widely used path to improved oral health.
More than 125 audience members listened attentively as Paul Connett and Clean Water Meadville squared off against Meadville Smiles and Dr. Johnny Johnson. Connett, a retired chemistry professor, is the former director and is currently a senior adviser to the nation’s leading anti-fluoridation organization, Fluoride Action Network. Johnson, a retired pediatric dentist, is president of the American Fluoridation Society, one of the country’s best known pro-fluoridation groups.
Johnson presented the case for fluoridation in a deep-voiced and steady southern drawl, telling the audience of his opponent, “Every fact that he has spoken about has been considered and in-depth rebuttals made, and denial, by the Environmental Protection Agency — absolute, every single one.”
The Cambridge University-educated Connett displayed more excitement in his comments despite his civil-toned British accent. Several times he addressed his opponents directly and suggested they were misrepresenting the facts regarding fluoride.
“Absolute nonsense,” he said of Johnson’s interpretation of one study.
“I’m sure you get a bonus for saying it’s safe and effective every few minutes,” Connett added, eliciting laughter from the audience.
But fear more than humor provided the dominant weapon in Connett’s arsenal as he dwelled at length on a Chinese study purported to show a link between fluoride and IQ deficits. Johnson called into question the validity of the same study, saying it had looked at people with much higher exposure to fluoride than would be possible if the Meadville Area Water Authority were to fluoridate its water.
Johnson pointed to the fact that in February the EPA denied a petition from Connett’s organization calling for a prohibition on fluoridation. Connett retorted by dismissing the EPA review as merely a “superficial” review of the issues.
The five members of the MAWA board sat stoically to one side of the room as the speakers addressed a crowd that had been cautioned to remain quiet and civil by the evening’s moderator, Frank Coppola. After a brief introduction by board President Tim Groves at the beginning of the forum, the board members made no other comments, even declining to answer questions from audience members.
The MAWA board will ultimately decide the fluoridation issue. While the decision is not likely to come at their May 17 meeting, it could come this summer, according to Groves.
Nearly 90 minutes of expert presentations and rebuttals, complete with slideshows, dramatic gestures and exaggerated head shaking, offered board members and the public plenty to think about — if ultimately not much more clarity on the controversial issue. By the ends of their presentations, both Connett and Johnson sped up the barrage of information, citing pages of statistics and studies from around the world as they approached the time limit enforced by Coppola.
Many audience members trying to keep up and to determine which expert possessed the most authority seemed to have already made up their minds on fluoridation. Dozens in the audience wore light blue Meadville Smiles T-shirts. Opponents of fluoridation made their presence as they called on Coppola to enforce his time limit when it was exceeded at one point by Dr. Denise Johnson, the leader of Meadville Smiles and chief medical officer at Meadville Medical Center.
In the comments from members of the public that followed the presentation, several recurring themes stood out. Several people criticized the fact that the unelected appointees who make up the board will make a decision affecting so many people and called for the issue to be put to the ballot.
Despite the clear differences among audience members, the civility called for at the outset was evident and provided another theme in the public comments. Several members of the public commented on the way in which the community had come together to discuss what can be an emotional issue for those who feel strongly on both sides.
“This is a lot better than the Crawford County courthouse debate we had,” audience member Dan Smith told the crowd, referring to the judicial center currently under construction, as he concluded his remarks in opposition to fluoridation.