Fluoride will be added to water supplied by the Meadville Area Water Authority after the authority’s board voted 3-2 in favor of the addition during Wednesday’s special meeting.
Board members John Fulmer and Hal Tubbs, who voted against fluoridation, and Dennis Finton, who voted in favor, had announced their positions prior to the meeting, leaving board President Tim Groves and Mark Gildea as the only undecided votes. Despite vocal opposition in the audience for the vote and in the months leading up to it, both men joined Finton, a dentist, in voting for fluoridation.
Groves and Gildea also cited scientific support for the effectiveness of fluoridation, support that fluoridation opponents had challenged at MAWA’s May public meeting on the issue, in letters to the editor and again in the public comments preceding the vote.
Gildea described the decision making process as a “long journey” involving extensive research.
“My decision came down to the fact that there is an established public need in our community for fluoridation,” Gildea said just before the vote. “I feel comfortable with doing this by the fact that 75 percent of public drinking water systems are fluoridated and represent over 200 million Americans that are drinking fluoridated water today.”
Gildea cited support for fluoridation from the Centers for Disease Control, the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the Department of Environmental Protection.
“I feel very comfortable that this is in the best interests of our community,” he said.
Groves read from a 2015 statement by then-U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy in support of fluoridation prior to the vote.
Fulmer did not think the split vote would be problematic and said it reflected the controversial nature of the topic.
“I think the community was very divided on the whole issue,” he said. Fulmer had cited the sharp division at MAWA’s monthly board meeting as grounds for his decision to vote against fluoridation.
The water MAWA currently supplies to customers contains 0.2 parts per million (or 0.2 milligrams of fluoride per liter) of water on average, according to MAWA’s 2016 Annual Water Quality Report, which is available on the MAWA website, mawa.us. MAWA plans to up that amount to 0.7 ppm, which the Centers for Disease Control recommends for optimal prevention of tooth decay.
When more fluoride will be added to the water isn’t known at this time. The permit approval process is likely to take months, but how many months depends on the DEP, according to Thomas Thompson, MAWA consulting engineer.
Thompson, of Gannett Fleming, has served with MAWA for nearly five years. He estimated the cost to fluoridate the water would be $2.90 per customer per year. The estimate includes costs for purchasing equipment, going through the permitting process and buying the actual fluoride.
MAWA supplies water to approximately 16,000 residents in Meadville and parts of Vernon, West Mead and Woodcock townships. MAWA also provides bulk water to the Vernon Township Water Authority, which serves approximately 475 residential and commercial customers.
Of the 18 members of the public who were each allotted 90 seconds to address the board prior to the vote, 13 spoke against fluoridation. The first of them, lifelong Meadville resident Ann Furno, sounded a theme that echoed through the comments of several more of the speakers opposed to fluoridation.
“The issue is not whether fluoride is good for people or not,” she told the board. “The issue is forcing people to have it in their water. Many people don’t want it and to force people to drink it, that is wrong.”
Christopher Knapp expressed similar concerns to the board. Knapp, a local chiropractor, is a leader of Clean Water Meadville and has been advocating against fluoridation since the topic came before the MAWA board in 2013.
“I’m concerned with how far the government should go in dictating how people live,” he said. “Can we — should we — force people to consume a product they don’t want and make them pay for it?”
Knapp also questioned the validity of more than 900 signatures accompanying a petition in favor of fluoridation that had been submitted to MAWA. Most of those signatures, he said, had been collected in 2013. Furthermore, Knapp said, they were collected inappropriately by Allegheny College students at the request of James Mullen, the college’s president.
Dave Roncolato, director of civic engagement at Allegheny and a member of the pro-fluoridation group Meadville Smiles, disputed Knapp’s version of events after the meeting, saying Mullen “had nothing to do with” his students’ involvement in the community engagement project that collected the signatures.
In the end, the majority of board members were unpersuaded by concerns about the ethics of universal fluoridation, the methods of fluoride supporters and even the alleged dangers that opponents said fluoridation could pose for infants.
Following the meeting, Groves said the voices heard at the meeting were not the only ones he considered in casting his vote.
“I’ve always said, in 28 years (as a Meadville resident), you also represent the people out there who don’t come to meetings to say something,” he said. “It’s the silent majority that we never really hear about.”
In addition, Groves cited the history and prevalence of fluoridation as well as the credibility of fluoridation supporters as factors in his decision.
“It’s hard to go against the medical profession,” he said.
MAWA will next apply for a construction permit from the state DEP allowing it to add the equipment necessary for fluoridation, according to Ted Watts, attorney for the authority.
The process will also involve additional public meetings, according to Watts.
“We’ll be doing this again,” he said.