The Yarmouth Board of Health will gather more information from both sides as it decides whether or not to recommend fluoridation of town drinking water.
At its Monday meeting, the board decided to postpone any recommendation until it had heard from an expert in the field who opposes fluoridation. It also will ask Dr. Myron Allukian, a dentist and former director of oral health for the Boston Health Commission, to provide information. It was Allukian, a fluoridation proponent and consultant to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, who addressed selectmen Jan. 9 before that board’s unanimous vote to endorse the state DPH’s position that towns adopt fluoridation.
The board of health instructed Yarmouth Health Director Bruce Murphy to find a fluoridation opponent from the ranks of the American Dental Association and to request a return visit from Allukian. The information could come in the form of a debate before the board or could also be accomplished with separate presentations.
The experts, said Murphy, could meet with the board in March or April, depending on their availability.
“I think the board has heard some concerns and is working to address those concerns,” Murphy said.
About a half-dozen people attended the Monday afternoon meeting and shared their concerns with the board. Some speakers said that Western Europe is moving away from the process while others pointed to possible ill effects from fluoridation. Granger Dyett told board members there are better ways to provide fluoride’s dental health benefits to children than by putting it in a public water supply.
But not all of the concerns came from the public. Board of health members Patrick McDermott and Helen Shah said they want to hear more information before making a decision.
“If it’s so all-fired good, why doesn’t the state mandate it?” asked McDermott. “Why don’t they do it themselves?” He then offered his own opinion that the issue is too much of a political football to be tackled at the state level. He also contended that the town has yet to explore the true costs of fluoridation.
Shah said the American Dental Association recently reversed its longstanding position and now recommends that children who are less than one year old not have fluoridated water mixed with their infant formula.
“The stuff that’s out there is not junk science,” said Shah, a registered nurse, referring to a comment made by Allukian during his presentation.
Shah also said she wants comparisons of how the teeth of Yarmouth children or children of other non-fluoridated towns compare to those children living with fluoridated water. She called Allukian’s assertion that such comparisons are unavailable “horsefeathers.”
Dr. Benjamin Gordon, the board’s chairman, said that as a pediatrician in the fluoridated state of Connecticut he saw no ill effects in children caused by fluoridation and didn’t hear of any, either. He did, however, agree that comparisons could be obtained and would be helpful.
“It seems a very basic question,” said Gordon.
Gordon took exception to speakers’ referrals to fluoride as a drug or a poison. He pointed out that some communities have naturally fluoridated water and that, if adopted, fluoridation would take place on the order of one part per million.
Gordon agreed with colleagues that more information from pro and con experts would answer many of the questions raised.
“I think it [presentations by experts] is an excellent way to go,” he said.
Gordon also explained that, should his board vote to recommend, the decision would trigger an automatic 90-day waiting period. In that time, a petition signed by 10 percent of the town’s registered voters would force a binding referendum on the subject. An affirmative vote would result in fluoridation; a negative vote would end the issue in Yarmouth for a two-year period.
In 2005, the board of health conducted public hearings on fluoridation before deciding not to move forward.
Fluoridation also became a topic at Tuesday night’s meeting of Yarmouth selectmen. At the start of the meeting Selectmen Chairman Jim Saben said the board’s action Jan. 9 was to endorse the state recommendation and move along a debate that had been “in limbo” for years.
“That process will go forward and that decision will be made by the board of health,” Saben said.
Near the end of the meeting, a Yarmouth Port resident was allowed to address the board and voiced his frustration with fluoridation and the town’s handling of the issue.
The sometimes heated exchange at one point led Selectman Bill Marasco, a doctor, to reiterate that the board’s decision was to support the state’s findings.
“I believe my state commissioner and I believe the information they provided me,” Marasco said.
According to information provided on its Web site, the ADA calls its policy on fluoride and infant formula “an interim guidance” while more research is conducted. It also emphasizes its five-decade old endorsement of fluoridated water as “a safe and effective means for prevention of tooth decay.”
Similar to the issue of smoking in restaurants, the decision to fluoridate drinking water is seen as a public health issue and is therefore in the bailiwick of local boards of health.
Massachusetts currently has 139 communities with fluoridated drinking water.