TRENTON – A decision that could have turned New Jersey from a state with one of the lowest rates of fluoridating the water to one of the nation’s leaders was delayed yesterday to allow the public more of a say.

The state Public Health Council, which took up the issue in October, had been expected to vote on whether to propose regulations requiring fluoridation of New Jersey’s public water supplies.

Instead, the council decided to hold a public hearing in two or three months and then rule on a petition filed more than a year ago by the New Jersey Dental Association requesting mandatory fluoridation.

“We have attempted to be as fair as we can on an issue that affects the whole population” of the state,” council chairman Dr. Robert Pallay said.

Arthur Meisel, the dental association’s executive director, said the group had no problem with allowing more public testimony on the issue, but he urged the council not to put off a decision indefinitely.

“What we are very concerned about is the health of the public in the same way in which physicians would be with a vaccine,” Meisel said. “Based upon the reports from the CDC and the surgeon general, more people are needlessly developing cavities.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the surgeon general have long advocated the use of fluoride in drinking water as an effective and inexpensive means of improving dental health.

However, fluoride in large concentrations is dangerous, and opponents to fluoridation argue that requiring everyone to ingest the chemical amounts to “mass medication.” They argue that fluoride can cause cancer and brain damage and is readily available in toothpastes and dental rinses to anyone who chooses to use such products.

About two-thirds of Americans get fluoride in their water, according to the CDC. In New Jersey, about one-fifth of the population gets the additive, ranking the state in the bottom five nationwide. Just over half of Pennsylvanians have fluoride in their water.

Eleven states mandate fluoridation.

There is no fluoridated water in Camden County. In Burlington, fluoride is added at McGuire Air Force Base and in Willingboro, and in portions of Mount Laurel, Chesterfield and Westampton Townships. In Gloucester County, more than half the residents get naturally occurring fluoride in their water.

Leading fluoridation opponent Paul Connett, a chemistry professor at St. Lawrence University in New York, asked the council to wait to make a decision until the National Research Council issues a report on the toxicity of fluoride later this year.