The Tennessee Department of Health is calling on local dental and medical professionals to promote fluoride treatments following a controversial decision to remove the compound from Columbia’s water supply.

Columbia Power and Water Systems announced their intention to remove fluoride from the local water supply in July, and on Sept. 25, the five-member Columbia Power and Water Systems Board of Public Utilities voted 3-2 to remove fluoride from local water. Opponents of water fluoridation said at board meetings that customers already consume too much fluoride while others claim it is toxic and can damage kidneys and the thyroid.

On Monday, Dr. Campbell M. Sowell Jr., a Columbia-based dentist, said he received a letter from the state health department asking local medical professionals to help “supplement” fluoride in their patients following the decision to remove the compound from the water system. Sowell said several dentists and orthopedists he knows in the area received similar letters from the state, which are dated Jan. 16.

Sowell said the fluoride used in water is a salt compound that hardens tooth enamel and prevents decay. In higher doses, the same fluoride compound used in the water system is also used to treat osteoporosis, according to the American Medical Association.

The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention said the fluoridation of water began on a large scale across America in the 1940s when it was found many Americans applying for the military in World War II did not have the minimum six teeth required for service. In 1999, the CDC even named the fluoridation of America’s water as one of the “10 greatest” public health triumphs of the modern era.

The letter from the state health department advocates fluoridation of water, calling it a “key health protection” for the prevention of oral diseases.

“The Tennessee Department of Health fully supports and endorses community water fluoridation, at optimal levels of .7 parts per million, in public water systems in Tennessee,” the letter said.

The letter also encourages local medical practitioners to encourage their patients to seek alternative sources of fluoride to prevent tooth decay, particularly in children ages 6 months through 16 years old. The state department of health also offers to work with local medical professionals to help prevent infectious diseases such as tooth decay and dental caries through fluoride treatments.

“Unfortunately, the access to fluoride in tap water has recently been removed in one of the communities that you serve, Columbia, Tenn.,” the letter stated. “Because of a recent vote by the Columbia Power and Water to discontinue water fluoridation, you may be currently treating or have the opportunity in the future to treat some of the individuals affected by this decision.”

Sowell said he sees the letter as further evidence the decision to remove fluoride from local water supplies is having a negative effect on the community.

“This is affecting all dental practitioners in the area,” he said. “It’s a travesty this decision was made. Anyone who is informed knows that this issue was caused by nothing more than junk science.”

However, not everyone agrees water fluoridation is the best option for local citizens. Board of Public Utilities member Teresa Beck voted to remove fluoride from local water and said she feels the board’s decision was the right one.

“I don’t have the right to force people to have fluoride in their water,” Beck said. “It’s not my job to force that on the public. I think the public should hear from both sides of the issue and then make up their own mind about fluoride.”

Beck said there are many other sources of fluoride outside of public water systems. She also advocates more public education about dental health care and more treatment options for those on TennCare.

“I don’t think we should regulate how much fluoride people are getting, because we don’t know how much they are ingesting through food and drink,” she said.

Still, Beck said the board’s decision is not set in stone and could be revisited at a later date. Beck said she hasn’t received any feedback from the public since the vote.

CPWS General Manager Wes Kelley said he expects the city council and Board of Public Utilities to maintain their decision to remove fluoride. Water fluoridation cost CPWS about $40,000 per year, or about $2 per customer, less than 1 percent of each customer’s annual water bill.

However, Kelley said the infrastructure to provide fluoride in the water system has not been removed.

“We have left the infrastructure in place in case future boards make another decision, but I cannot see the current board making that kind of decision,” he said. “If the state legislated a change or local policymakers issued a change, we would be willing to put that back in place.”

Columbia Mayor Dean Dickey said it would be up to the Board of Public Utilities to restore water fluoridation in the city. Dickey said to his knowledge the city has not received any communication from state entities regarding water fluoridation.

“I am not aware of any discussion scheduled on that,” Dickey said. “We haven’t really received any questions on this since it happen.”

For now, Sowell said, Columbia’s citizens and medical community will suffer the consequences.

“It wasn’t my decision to make, but because of what our city leaders have chosen we have to live with it,” he said.