The process to cease adding fluoride to the water that’s used by about 75,000 people daily has begun for the State College Borough Water Authority.
The authority has contacted the state Department of Environmental Protection to start the re-permitting process to cease fluoridation. A public notification process has been underway since August and will continue through October. Following that, the authority will submit a series of applications to the DEP.
The tentative fluoridation end date is March 31, 2023, but it will ultimately depend on how long it takes the DEP to review the authority’s application. Brian Heiser, SCBWA executive director, said they’ll get a better sense of their fluoride inventory too, so they don’t have any left over.
In a move that drew controversy and local health officials speaking out in opposition, the authority voted in July to end water fluoridation, something it’s done since 1954. Though it’s been done it for decades, the SCBWA is in the minority for the area, Heiser said.
“If you take this area for example, we are the only public water supplier that puts fluoride in water,” Heiser said. “In Centre County, ourselves and a system up in the Philipsburg area puts fluoride in, that’s it.”
Leading up to and after the vote, health care providers across Centre County voiced concern about the impact on oral health in the area, with Centre Volunteers in Medicine saying that the decision will worsen the community’s “dental health crisis.” But as for response from the general public, Heiser and SCBWA board president Jeff Kern said that it’s been mixed.
“It’s about 50/50, 50% of people say that, ‘I’m glad you did it,’ and 50% of people say ‘I wish you hadn’t.’ Just personally I’ve had people come up to me around town and say, ‘thank you,’ and I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘you sure you really want to do that?’ But it’s not been overwhelming either direction. I would say it’s half and half,” Kern said.
Heiser said there can be a misconception about what fluoride does when it’s put in water.
“Fluoride is a supplement for oral health, it has nothing to do with making the water safe to drink. By removing the fluoride, we are not changing the water quality,” he said.
The Centre Daily Times recently interviewed Heiser and Kern to learn more about the decision, the process and the community reaction. Below are their responses, which have been edited for clarity and length.
CDT: Would the board ever reconsider their decision? If a future board wanted to start adding fluoride again, what would that process look like?
Kern: I would suspect that if there was scientific evidence provided to us that would make us rethink the scientific evidence we were already evaluating, we’d reconsider. I don’t know that we’d revote. We try to stay on top of all the water quality and environmental information that we can get our hands on from various sources, including publications, state documents, DEP, CDC.
Could a subsequent board, if there was ever a subsequent board, vote to do it? Yeah. But they would have to go through the re-permitting process of getting the state to allow us to change the chemistry in the water. (Water authority members are appointed by the State College Borough Council; four members are borough residents and three are residents of the townships the authority serves, which includes parts of Benner, College, Harris, Halfmoon, Patton and Ferguson Townships.)
CDT: What is the process that the authority has to go through and what stage is the authority in?
Heiser: We have reached out to DEP to start the process. We have to complete a series of applications, submit them as a package to DEP. Prior to submitting those we need to make public notification that we intend to submit those applications. The public notification process has already started. It started in August, and will continue through October. And the applications will be submitted to DEP approximately mid-October.
The DEP will review the application and if they find it acceptable, they will issue notification that we may stop feeding fluoride, at which time we need to make public notice again, that we will cease fluoridation with an approximate end date. We’ve already included an approximate end date in the first public notification (March 31, 2023).
CDT: Is there a public hearing as part of this process or is it just the public notification?
Heiser: The public notification allows for people to comment either to us or directly to DEP. If you go to our website, the public notice is on there.
CDT: What is the most important thing that you would want customers to understand about the decision to stop adding fluoride?
Kern: I think there’s some misconceptions out there. One of them is that we’re doing this to save money. We have a maximum capacity of 8.3 million gallons a day, we have a pretty large budget, and we have a pretty large emergency funding and capital equipment budget. The $70,000 a year or so that we spend on fluoride is probably one of the smallest expenditures we have in terms of our operating budget. Some of our pickup trucks that are completely outfitted with the appropriate equipment cost that much money. So it’s not a money thing at all.
Heiser: The fluoride makes up less than 1% of the 2022 budget.
Kern: Secondly, I think the board itself spent a lot of time studying peer reviewed, scientific journal articles that were up to date, published in 2019, 2020, 2021. And they led the board to believe that it was more appropriate for us to not deliver fluoride than to deliver fluoride through the water. And the rationale was, I think, most toothpaste and mouthwashes have fluoride in them. Most dentists give fluoride treatment to kids and adults. And, let’s face it, a whole lot of people are drinking bottled water, they’re not drinking our water anyway. They’re using it for other purposes. So I don’t know how much fluoride some of those people who drink bottled water all day are getting. And there was some CDC information that led us to believe that it wasn’t as inconsequential as we used to think it was to put it in the system.
CDT: The ad-hoc committee relied on a body of research to form its report that was then presented to the rest of the board. During the following meetings, numerous local health care professionals spoke out in opposition to the plan to end fluoride as well as the studies and some reports that were used to make that decision. How was the feedback from the people who spoke during the meetings used by either the committee or the board to form the decision?
Kern: After we had that hearing and those people spoke, the board had 30 days to consider all that information and also gather more information. We also had health care professionals recommend that we not have fluoride in the water. I’m not saying equal numbers, but we had health care professionals who were just as qualified as some of the ones who recommended we add it to water, and the board considered that.
During those 30 days, I know that I read a number more of the articles that were given to us by our committee and looked up some stuff myself and other board members did the same thing. And given that 30 more days of examination, the board voted the way it did.
When we started this, I did not think it would be a unanimous vote. But the board, as we did our research, coalesced around an opinion.
CDT: During a board discussion on July 21, it was mentioned by a couple of members that they’d like the authority to consider what they could do as a community to improve the oral health of children and invest in oral health education programs. Has there been any more discussion or advancement of that?
Kern: No one brought it up at the last meeting. I’m not saying they wouldn’t bring it up. The last meeting they did not have any discussion about it.
CDT: Is there anything else that would be important for readers to know about this topic?
Kern: This water authority is one of the better, if not the best, in the state in terms of its maintenance of its equipment and its piping. We spent a lot of money keeping this system truly up to date. I mean, there are crises, you know, the one down in Jackson, Mississippi, where they didn’t do anything for decades. We literally do millions of dollars worth of maintenance every year to make sure that we are not just not leaking, but we are producing quality water that is not sitting in pipes, getting brown and is going through the system at an appropriate rate. We maintain our wells and our source water, rigidly. And if anything, I would say the community ought to take a lot of pride in what this water authority does on a daily basis to keep the quality up.
You know, people want to know where we spend our money. Well, we’re fixing things and maintaining things every day of the week. The staff brings to the board a list of projects and we look at our budget, the list of projects and we approve a good number of projects every year. And there’s a five year plan that we are planning toward to keep those projects going. We don’t really have any deferred maintenance, except maybe some painting here or there, that kind of thing, and that would be like in an administrative building or something, it’s not on our quality.
There’s sometimes these comments that we’re cutting back services and stuff like that. We haven’t done anything but expand services since I’ve been on the board and that’s been 15 years. We’ve done nothing but expand every year. We’ve never contracted services anywhere.
*Original full-text article online at: https://www.centredaily.com/news/local/community/state-college/article265921776.html