The debate over fluoridation continued Wednesday at South Blount Utility District’s monthly board of commissioners meeting.

The district’s decision not to fluoridate water at its new plant, completed this year, has drawn staunch support and opposition from customers. Both sides made an appearance at the meeting Wednesday.

Commissioners decided to continue collecting information on fluoridation, look for a way to educate customers about the issue, and get an accurate poll or survey of what customers want. They did not reverse their decision on fluoridation.

Customer comment

Celeste Meunier voiced concerns about the effect lack of fluoridation could have on the dental health of South Blount’s customers, particularly families that can’t afford regular dental care. It wouldn’t cost much to add it to the water, she said.

“It’s cheap,” Meunier said.

Some families have sought fluoride supplements. Walgreen pharmacist Heather Webb said demand for the supplements has increased a lot since September.

Larry Campbell didn’t think fluoride should be added to the water. He’s concerned about the effects fluoride could have on the health of South Blount customers. Like others at the meeting, he referenced studies and information on the Web to support his position.

Mike Biddle, a customer who couldn’t make the meeting, spent his Thanksgiving holiday building a Web site to inform people of the hazards of fluoride use.

People can also register on the site in support of leaving fluoridation out of South Blount’s water supply.

Biddle is worried about the long-term effects of fluoride.

“It builds up in your body,” he said.

Rex Ogle Jr., mentioned the Web site he built in favor of fluoridation and a recent action by the state of California requiring fluoride in public water systems with 10,000 customers.

Four residents spoke at the meeting, with the majority favoring use of fluoridation in public water supplies.

The Blount County Department of Health and the Blount County Dental Society have also expressed their support for fluoridation.

South Blount purchased water from the city of Alcoa and Tellico Area Services Systems until June 2004, when it began selling water from its new plant. Water from its previous distributors was fluoridated.

Public input process

In a letter to the board, Laura Harrill, facilitator for the Blount County Community Health Initiative, urged the utility district to reconsider the decision. She also questioned the utility district’s public input process.

“Most recently we have been concerned about the recent decision to omit fluoride from the water of the customers of your district,” Harrill wrote. “The decision made without citizen input from your customers is unacceptable.”

Isom Lail, utility district manager, said the decision had been made at public meetings.

“It’s been publicly known,” he said.

The board holds monthly meetings, listed on customer bills. They are regularly held 9 a.m. on the first Tuesday of each month.

Notice of the board’s decision was also listed in its 2004 Water Quality Report, published in June 2004.

“Beginning July 1, 2004, at the new plant start up fluoride will not be used during the treatment process,” according to the report.

Local newspaper articles also followed the plant’s construction, said Lail.

Fluoridation of public water, while recommended by state and federal public health services, is not required.

Polling residents

Board commissioners are now faced with the task of getting public opinion on the matter, and they’re not certain at this point how to do that or how best to educate the public.

“I’d like to get something out to the public as to the pros and cons of the issue — as it is overwhelming,” said Virginia Morton, vice president of the South Blount Utility of Board Commissioners.

The fluoridation issue has been debated since the ’50s, and there are a lot of scientific studies supporting its benefits and its hazards to health.

“They’re just as convincing either way, which makes it difficult,” said Henry Durant, South Blount Utility water treatment plant manager.

The American Dental Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend fluoridation of public water supplies.

The Fluoride Action Network points to numerous studies underlining the hazards of fluoride use, as well as comments from a 2000 Nobel Laureate in Medicine and a top U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official advising against use of fluoride.

The district has been tracking calls and letters from customers. Thirty-three of the district’s 13,000 customers have commented by phone or letter since Nov. 8, said Lail. Of those, 25 expressed support for the decision not to fluoridate.

Ogle said 138 people have signed a petition in favor of fluoridation. Utility customer Sam Duck, also at the meeting, said 78 residents of 80 he polled were in favor of it, too.

Board Secretary Tom Abbott said after the meeting that a lot of customers have talked to him about the lack of fluoridation and supported the board’s decision.

“Everybody I talked to, they say the less chemicals in the water, the better,” Abbott said.