BENNINGTON – The Select Board voted unanimously Tuesday to appoint a committee of prominent citizens to consider the pros and cons of adding fluoride to the town’s public water supply.
Meeting for the first time since an emotional public hearing on the issue last month, the Select Board called for a rational, comprehensive study of the public health issues involved in the proposal.
“There are compelling arguments on two sides here,” Chairman Howard Sinnott said. “We do not need another divisive issue in this community.”
A group of local dentists led by Dr. Michael Brady recently urged the board to support fluoridation, saying it would reduce tooth decay and promote the oral health of all Bennington residents, but especially the young and the old.
They cited a study showing that Mount Anthony Union High School students had one of the worst rates of tooth decay in Vermont and told anecdotes about 5-year-olds undergoing full extractions.
But opposition was swift. Several local residents formed Bennington Citizens Against Fluoridated Water and mounted a political offensive, arguing that the chemical was linked to any number of diseases, including bone and testicular cancer. The opponents urged caution, saying fluoride should not be imposed on those convinced the chemical carried more risks than rewards.
Select Board member Ronal Hall said Tuesday that it was time to turn to an impartial committee to study the extent of the community’s oral health problems. Board members said they wanted to consider a range of solutions, including education, nutrition and funding for dental programs targeted to specific populations.
Although board members have discussed putting the issue before the voters at town meeting next March, they emphasized Tuesday that they would not impose a time limit on any committee. A study could take as long as a year, member Joseph Krawczyk said.
The board will consider committee appointments when it meets in executive session on April 24.
The decision to appoint a study group was welcomed by private citizens on both sides of the issue.
“I see it as a very wise move. We need more discussion,” Linda Crawford of the Bennington Citizens Against Fluoridation said.
Brady echoed her comments.
“I think the rhetoric has been very difficult for all of us,” he said.
In brief interviews after the meeting, Crawford and Brady agreed that the central issue in the fluoride debate was finding a balance between the public good and freedom of choice.
“That’s where the discussion should be,” Brady said.