Voters in Rutland will be asked whether or not they want the city to continue adding fluoride to municipal water. Dentists and state experts tout decades of improved oral health, but opponents believe possible negative effects are being brushed aside.
Fluoride is a natural mineral found in rock formations and soil. All water sources in Vermont have varying levels of natural fluoride.
By the 1930s, scientists understood that fluoride strengthened teeth and made them less prone to decay.
Grand Rapids, Michigan became the first city to test low levels of fluoride in its drinking water in 1945.
Burlington followed in 1952, becoming the first community in Vermont to fluoridate its water.
Edward Reiman practiced dentistry in Rutland from 1949 to 2004. He says when Rutland finally added fluoride to its drinking water in the early 1980s, the difference was profound.
“Before children had the opportunity to drink fluoridated water almost every single child that came into my office had cavities in their teeth, many of them being so severe that the teeth were infected and had to be extracted," Reiman says. "After three or four years of drinking fluoridated water it was very common for children to come into my office and never have a cavity.”
Longtime Rutland dentist Michael Dick says people over 55 benefit from fluoridated water as well. Dick says gums recede as people age, exposing parts of the root. Fluoridated water, he says, helps older adults avoid costly dental work.
Rutland spends about $10,000 a year to fluoridate its water - about 60 cents a year per person. To have a molar filled by a local dentist can cost anywhere from $100 to $300.
“Believe me," says Dick, "if we take fluoridation out of the water we will increase health care costs in dentistry immeasurably. It will take people out of the workforce on given days because they have toothaches and go to go to the dentist. They’re going to have other problems and that’s going to be a cost that just mushrooms.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls community water fluoridation one of the ten greatest public health achievements of the 20th century.
But Rutland resident Jack Crowther is not convinced.
If fluoridating drinking water is such a no-brainer, why, he wonders, do countries like Belgium, France, Germany, Japan, and Norway not do it?
Last year, Crowther created Rutland Fluoride Action, to raise awareness of what he considers the risks of water fluoridation.
Kathleen Krevestki, a registered nurse who lives in Rutland, calls the hydrofluorosilicic acid that’s used to fluoridate Rutland’s water supply a hazardous waste product that is wrongly being forced on the public.
“My concern is that there is no dosage,” says Krevetski. “If you drink two cups of water today and I drink one we have a different dosage.”
“What about the athletes that are drinking quarts and quarts of this water versus a little baby and that’s all their taking?" asks Krevetski. “You can’t put a drug in the water and say, ‘oh that’s good for everybody,’ and never consider how much that population is drinking.”
Krevetski and Crowther also believe too little is known about potential adverse side affects of fluoride on the body.
But state toxicologist Sarah Vose disagrees. She says there are a number of reputable studies that show no harmful effects from fluoride in drinking water. And she says the Environmental Protection Agency has specifically addressed dosage.
“We constantly review these studies and determine if we should update any of our policies,” says Vose. “But right now the scientific evidence does not point to a risk for people to develop adverse health effects due to drinking water that contains fluoride.”
While hydrofluorosilicic acid is a chemical byproduct that can be hazardous if improperly used, Vose says chlorine can be just as hazardous but is also regularly used in drinking water.
While Rutland voters will be able to weigh in on fluoridation on Town Meeting Day, the city’s charter dictates the final decision rests with the Public Works Commissioner, Jeff Wennberg.
Wennberg says he considers the vote advisory, adding, “Absent a vote that is persuasive, that the public doesn’t want to do this, I’m going to listen to the public health officials who do have the qualifications - who have the right letters after their name.”
Residents in nearby Proctor will also be voting on whether or not to continue fluoridating their public water supply - something the town has done since the early 1960s.