Official Cut Fluoride Without Telling Town

Water chief was worried about supply from China
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Oct 9, 2022 4:30 PM CDT
Official Cut Fluoride Without Telling Town
People walk past cafe tables Wednesday in Richmond, Vt.   (AP Photo/Wilson Ring)

Residents of a small community in Vermont were blindsided last month by news that one official in their water department quietly lowered fluoride levels nearly four years ago, giving rise to worries about their children's dental health and transparent government—and highlighting the enduring misinformation around water fluoridation. Katie Mather, who lives in Richmond, a town of about 4,100, said at a water commission meeting last week that her dentist recently found her two kids' first cavities, the AP reports. She acknowledged they eat a lot of sugar but noted that her dentist suggest they not have supplemental fluoride because the town's water should be doing the trick.

Her dentist "was operating and making professional recommendations based on state standards we all assumed were being met, which they were not," Mather said. "It's the fact that we didn’t have the opportunity to give our informed consent that gets to me." The addition of fluoride to public drinking water systems has been routine in communities across the United States since the 1940s and '50s but still doesn't sit well with some people, and many countries don't fluoridate water for various reasons, including feasibility. Critics argue that the health effects of fluoride aren’t fully known and that its addition to municipal water can amount to an unwanted medication; some communities in recent years have ended the practice. In 2015, the federal government lowered its recommended amount in drinking water after some children got too much of it, causing white splotches on their teeth.

While such splotches are primarily a cosmetic problem, the American Dental Association notes on its website that fluoride—along with life-giving substances including salt, iron, and oxygen—can be toxic in large doses. But in the recommended amounts, fluoride in water decreases cavities or tooth decay by about 25%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which reported in 2018 that 73% of the US population was served by water systems with adequate fluoride to protect teeth. Kendall Chamberlin, Richmond's water and wastewater superintendent, told the Water and Sewer Commission in September that he reduced the fluoride level because of his concerns about changes to its sourcing and the recommended levels.

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Chamberlin said he worries about quality control in the fluoride used in drinking systems because it comes from China—an assertion that echoes unfounded reports about Chinese fluoride that have circulated online. And, he said, he doesn't think the state's recommended level of fluoride is warranted now. “My duty is to take reasonable care and judgment for the protection of public health, safety and the environment of my customers," he said. Two of the three fluoride additives US water systems can use do, in fact, come from China because they have no domestic manufacturers, but all are subject to stringent standards, testing and certification to ensure safety, a CDC spokesperson said. Spokespeople for the Vermont Department of Health concurred that all additives must meet those national standards. "For a single person to unilaterally make the decision that this public health benefit might not be warranted is inappropriate. I think it's outrageous," retired Dr. Allen Knowles said at the Sept. 19 meeting.

(Read more fluoride stories.)

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