Updated Nov. 22
The Edgartown board of health stood by its controversial decision to add fluoride to the municipal water system despite heated debate at a meeting Tuesday evening called to review the board’s earlier action.
At Tuesday’s meeting, with 15 people in the audience, the board held firm knowing that enough signatures had been gathered by petition to bring the question of adding fluoride to the water to town voters.
“We’d like to start out by apologizing to the water department,” board of health member Harold Zadeh said. “You should have been involved from the start. We found out Wednesday that there are 400 names on the petition, so it will be put on a ballot. That was our intent anyways.”
At issue is the Oct. 10 vote by Mr. Zadeh and Dr. Garrett Orazem to enact a statute that would fluoridate the town’s water supply. Board member Kathie Case abstained from the vote. Residents were given 90 days from the date the community was notified to gather signatures from 10 percent of the town’s 3,628 registered voters.
The announcement was published on Oct. 20, enraging some in the community and prompting a petition drive that’s gathered enough signatures to get the issue before voters at a spring town meeting.
“So you’re not going to rescind?” Edgartown resident and harbormaster Charlie Blair said from the audience.
“I’m not going to rescind, I’m going to let it go through the process,” Mr. Zadeh responded, and Mr. Blair abruptly left the meeting.
After nearly an hour of discussion, the board officially decided not to rescind and instead will attempt to educate voters leading up to town meeting, Mr. Zadeh said.
Once again, Ms. Case was not at the meeting. She was off-Island at an appointment.
“We’re not going to agree on this,” health agent Matt Poole said. “But I think we should talk about what happens if this does pass.” The meeting concluded, and transparency was mentioned a key to collaboration moving forward.
Not everyone at the meeting was opposed to fluoride in the water. Chilmark resident and Vineyard Haven dentist Bruce Golden spoke to the board’s decision, stating that two-thirds of the nation’s population drinks fluoridated water. “Fluoridated water is a wonderful, reasonable, healthy, and inexpensive thing,” he said.
For some, the key issue was the process used by the board. At a meeting last week, members of the water commission said the decision shouldn’t have been made without their input, as well as feedback from the community at large.
“I don’t think anybody, local or federal, should dictate what entire communities take for medication,” water superintendent Bill Chapman said at a meeting the previous Tuesday.
Fluoride is an inorganic compound known to strengthen teeth and prevent cavities. Communities began fluoridating their water systems in the mid-1940s as a way to prevent tooth decay across large populations. Since then, alternative methods for fluoridation have developed in mouthwashes, toothpastes, and medication.
Dr. Orazem is a dentist on-Island, and believes communities that can fluoridate, should. “We have communities that have grown with fluoride in their water system,” Dr. Orazem said. “It’s in the ocean water, and mammals have been swimming in it for millions of years. It is safe and effective, and it exists for 279 million Americans.”
Mr. Poole had noted previously that Dr. Orazem’s opinion is supported by the Center for Disease Control, as well as by other large and representative public health entities.
The cost of fluoridating the water system in Edgartown would be about $640,000 in capital costs, and $14,500 in annual operations, according to Mr. Chapman. “If it were required to meet regulations, then it would be money well spent,” Mr. Chapman told The Times. “In this particular case, it seems expensive to implement something like this when there are alternatives.”
Mr. Chapman noted that fluoride has a maximum contaminant level (MCL), which means there’s a threshold to how much should be ingested. He also said fluoride would be the only added chemical in Edgartown’s water supply that’s not used for treatment and purification, and would add to the system’s already high levels of sodium.
Many in town have been active in speaking against the board of health’s decision. Selectmen Arthur Smadbeck vocalized from the start that he believed the board of health should rescind its vote. Community members have voiced their opinions at meetings, organized drive-through petition signings, and stood outside the Old Whaling Church with signs during special town meeting last week.
Story updated to correct the capital cost involved in fluoridating the water.