Shaler Township commissioners plan to decide this year whether adding fluoride to the township water supply is a good idea.

The Shaler water system, which supplies more than 30,000 people in Shaler Township, Etna and portions of Hampton and O’Hara townships and Millvale, never has added fluoride to drinking water.

If the commissioners conclude by December that fluoridation is desirable, that could change.

Supporters and opponents of fluoridated drinking water got a chance to speak Tuesday night in Shaler Township, as the board of commissioners set to work gathering information to write a position paper on the subject.

Commissioners passed a resolution to write the paper by December. Tim Rogers, township manager, said the document will help commissioners give an intelligent and reasoned answer when residents ask why their water is or is not fluoridated.

Some say fluoride added to drinking water is important to the public health because it plays a vital role in preventing tooth decay.

Others argue that fluoride is potentially dangerous and that water suppliers have no business medicating what comes out of peoples taps.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, based in Atlanta, about 66 percent of people in the United States received “optimally fluoridated water” in 2000. The figure for Pennsylvania was 54.2 percent.

Shaler officials said the issue previously has come before the board. Rogers said that 10 to 12 years ago, there was intense public interest.

“There was an overwhelming, absolute opposition to it,” he said.

Before Tuesday’s meeting, Rogers received about 70 e-mails from people warning about the dangers of fluoridation. The messages came from folks as far away as Ireland, Hawaii and Texas, though none were Shaler residents.

At Tuesday night’s meeting, two distinct factions spoke on the issue.

Four Shaler water employees strongly opposed fluoridation, while four people involved with the dental profession argued in favor of it. Water plant foreman Kevin Cridge said it is inappropriate for a public water company to add medication to the water supply.

“All we want to do is put out water that meets the standards under the safe drinking water act,” he said.

He said that while chlorine, which is added to drinking water, plays a vital role in disease prevention, the same cannot be said of fluoride.

Cridge also said it makes no sense to medicate the drinking water when there is no way to control the dosage.

One part per million of fluoride is considered the proper amount in this climate, he said, but at 4 parts per million, it is considered a contaminant.

At 2 parts per million, there is a risk of fluorosis – a discoloring of the teeth caused by fluoride, he said. Cridge wondered how dosage levels can be controlled, because individuals can consume different amounts of water.

Cridge also warned that the compounds commonly used to fluoridate water are not pharmaceutical-grade, but are made instead from dangerous industrial by-products. These compounds often contain lead and arsenic, he said.

“There is no safe level of either contaminant,” Cridge said.

Dan Bonnett, Shaler water distribution manager, said fluoride sometimes is used as an insecticide.

“It’s a poison,” he said.

Dental hygienist Cindy Watkins disagreed. “One part per million is so little, but it’s so beneficial,” she said.

Watkins was one of four dental workers who said fluoride has great benefits.

Dentist Ed Pallotta said he notices the high rate of decay among Shaler residents at his practice along Mt. Royal Boulevard.

Nora Peace, who is married to a dentist and has worked in the dental field in several different areas said children who drink fluoridated water seem to have better teeth.

Dental hygienist Christine Kulbacki said she estimates Shaler children have nine or 10 times more cavities than children from communities with fluoridated water and that 80 percent of Shaler’s youths have excessive cavities.

She called the condition “Shaler mouth.”

Supporters and opponents of fluoridation cite contradictory studies that purport to prove or disprove that fluoride fights tooth decay or causes other medical problems.

“It all depends on which study you want to believe,” Bonnett said.

Opponents of fluoridation said people are free to use fluoride – in their toothpaste and mouthwash or in a tablet form – but that the decision should be left to individuals and families.

Township Commissioner William Cross, who heads the Shaler Water Committee, said that is the central issue in the fluoride debate.

“I don’t think anyone would argue that children need fluoride,” he said. “The question is how we get it to them.”