Oak Bluffs board of health hosts heated fluoride debate

Upper Lagoon Pond in Oak Bluffs is a water source for the town. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

Following a tempestuous public meeting last Thursday night at the Oak Bluffs Public Library, the board of health took no action on the question of whether to continue the practice of adding fluoride to the town water supply, as it has since 1991.

The board agreed to take the issue under advisement and consider the comments and information provided by about two dozen of the 50 residents who jammed the library meeting room. Speaking after the meeting, board chairman William White, who moderated the fractious 90-minute debate, said his personal choice would be to bring the question to town voters at the annual town meeting in April.

If the issue does make it to the town meeting floor, voters can expect to hear a repeat of many of the positions held by fluoride opponents and proponents that were laid out on Thursday night, often in strident tones and through shouted interruptions that required Mr. White to repeatedly call for civil debate and orderly commentary.

Perhaps the ugliest scene of the evening occurred after resident Jennifer Kingsley, a biologist, said, “I can’t believe we’re even discussing this subject.” Ms. Kingsley visibly recoiled as a dozen antifluoride proponents shouted her down.

Opponents of fluoride centered on two themes: that the inclusion of fluoride in water systems by government robs them of a choice about using fluoride; second, that fluoride as used in U.S. water systems is a toxic byproduct of offshore metal industries and is dangerous to public health. Several speakers referenced studies that supported their position that the use of fluoride in water systems produces higher rates of cancer, osteoporosis, and other bone diseases.

Although the meeting was billed as a public forum, board of health member John Campbell, a chiropractor at the forefront of the fluoride-removal effort, used the forum to repeat his position, expressed at an earlier meeting, on why fluoride should be removed from the municipal water system. The public also had plenty to say on the topic.

“Would you use a product with this label?” Oak Bluffs resident John Casey demanded, holding up a picture, purportedly of a label on a fluoride container, that contained a skull and crossbones image.

“It’s rat poison, a known toxin,” echoed Eric Carlsen.

Several Island dentists attended the meeting to speak in favor of the public health benefits of fluoridation. They argued that their personal experiences and more than 60 years of research and study have proven fluoride to be an aid to dental health, and that it does not lead to other health risks. Several said that the “greater good” to the public from fluoridation, similar to flu shots and vaccination, should trump personal choice in this health matter.

Myron Allukian, who has chaired the U.S. Surgeon General’s Work Group on Fluoridation and Dental Health, and who managed the city of Boston’s dental-care program, joined the meeting via speakerphone.

“Dental health disease has been reduced by half if not more since 1978,” he said. “An enormous growth in dental health has been noted in 140 Massachusetts communities which fluoridate. Fluoride is a naturally occurring substance in the earth; we can’t get water without fluoride. We’ve just duplicated what nature showed us.

“It comes down to credibility. Who are you going to believe, studies or credible data, or junk on the Internet? If your board of health has concerns, then get the state health department and other parties involved. In a nutshell, virtually every health agency and the surgeon general support fluoridation. Don’t shortchange your community. I put it on your board of health to research the issue.”

Both sides in the debate waved studies and findings to support their viewpoints. Oak Bluffs resident and shellfish constable David Grunden asked people to take a considered approach to the issue. “Don’t cherry-pick the information that is available,” he said. “We know more now than we did 60 years ago. Some studies may be outdated. There are also different solutions today, such as sealants for teeth.”

Though several residents thanked the board for scheduling an evening session, few opinions seemed to change.

“I’m more confused right now than when I walked in here tonight,” said Richard Combra, former Oak Bluffs selectman. “But I’ve been here awhile, with and without fluoride, and I imagine I’ll continue to be here, however it works out.”

Board of health members Patricia Bergeron and Mr. White did not disclose a position on the issue.

Asked prior to the meeting whether fluoridation was a new issue and why it is flaring up right now, Dr. Campbell said it had been laying in the weeds for some time, and was only coming up now because he is on the board of health and because the water department made a request of the board.
“My patients have asked me to take up the matter,” he said.
A town official who asked not to be identified said the fluoride-removal campaign was initiated by Dr. Campbell, not the water district, and that Dr. Campbell also raised the issue in his previous tenure as a health board member 15 years ago.

Fluoride was first used in American community drinking water in 1945. About 72 percent of community water systems in the U.S. contain a fluoride additive of 0.7 parts per million of water. Oak Bluffs and the Wampanoag tribe in Aquinnah are the only two of four Island community water systems that fluoridate.