Updated Nov. 30
The real debate in Edgartown isn’t over whether or not to add fluoride to the town’s water supply. The real debate is over how the board of health went about its decision to add fluoride to the town’s water supply.
Perhaps knowing there would be a public outcry similar to what happened in Oak Bluffs several years ago, the board of health decided to take its vote quietly, without much advance public input. The Oct. 10 vote was approved by chairman Harold Zadeh and board member Dr. Garrett Orazem. Board member Kathie Case abstained.
It wasn’t until Bill Chapman, superintendent of the town’s water commission, brought the issue to the attention of the board of selectmen that the general public caught wind that a decision had been made.
That announcement triggered an immediate and passionate reaction from the public, spurred by the the town’s board of water commissioners, who were left out of the decision-making process.
We understand that the board of health’s role is to protect public health, but the water commission controls the water supply, and selectmen control the purse strings. It would seem prudent to consult both before charging ahead with a decision that requires buy-in from both boards.
Science has spoken on the benefits of fluoride in the fight against tooth decay. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) calls fluoridation of water “one of 10 great health achievements of the 20th century.”
The CDC has found that the benefits far outweigh the risks of adding fluoride.
“Drinking fluoridated water keeps teeth strong and reduces cavities (also called tooth decay) by about 25 percent in children and adults,” the CDC states. “By preventing cavities, community water fluoridation has been shown to save money for families and for the U.S. healthcare system.”
But this isn’t about the benefits of fluoride, it’s more about the benefits of having an open and transparent process that leaves the public feeling good about a decision — one they’re going to have to pay for in the long run. That didn’t happen in Edgartown.
Last week, the board of health had an opportunity to change the focus and, once again, failed. Given the public outcry, the board held a meeting to reconsider its vote and, ultimately, decided to let it stand.
It was a tone-deaf decision. Petitioners had already gathered the necessary signatures to bring the issue before voters at town meeting, so opponents already achieved their objective.
But that’s shortsighted. What people, and the water commission in particular, wanted was a more open process ahead of the issue going to town meeting. Let’s face it, fluoridation was going to have to go to voters anyway because of the cost of adding fluoride to the water system. The $640,000 capital expense is something that would have to be approved by voters. There is also an annual cost of operations estimated at $14,500.
“We’d like to start out by apologizing to the water department,” Mr. Zadeh said at the board’s Nov. 21 meeting. “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.”
Board of health members said they will spend the next few months educating voters on the benefits of fluoride, and trying to win over those who object to adding a chemical to everyone’s drinking water.
Board members have made that a steep hill to climb by not including other town boards and the public from the beginning of the process.
Updated to correct the Mr. Chapman’s title.