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Westmoreland customers getting fluoride out of their water

| Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013, 12:10 a.m.

With a few twists of his wrist, Charles Gallo of Ligonier Township says he can protect himself from a harmful substance in his drinking water.

He recently attached a reverse-osmosis purification device to his kitchen tap to rid his water of fluoride.

He and about 1,500 Ligonier Valley customers of the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County will soon get fluoridated water through a 14-mile pipeline from the Johnstown Municipal Authority.

The Westmoreland authority doesn't add fluoride to its water, but the Johnstown Municipal Authority does.

Customers in Ligonier Borough, Laughlintown, Laurel Mountain and parts of Ligonier Township will receive the Johnstown water once line testing is completed, probably this month, said John Ashton, assistant manager of the Westmoreland authority.

Gallo, who works as a clinical psychologist in Monroeville, said the water at his home will be modified by the purification device.

“What it does is remove contaminants such as fluoride, chlorine, and makes it safe to consume,” Gallo said.

He maintains fluoride is potentially harmful, although the American Medical Association, the American Dental Association, the Pennsylvania Dental Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say fluoridated water helps to prevent tooth decay.

Additive supported

The CDC calls water fluoridation “one of the 10 most significant public health achievements of the 20th century.”

More than half of Pennsylvanians served by public water systems drink fluoridated water, according to the CDC.

Although the Westmoreland authority doesn't add fluoride for its 400,000 customers, it will begin adding it in a few years to the supply going to Monroeville and Plum — at the municipalities' request, authority manager Chris Kerr said.

“It won't affect any other customers,” Kerr said.

The authority serves parts of Westmoreland, Indiana, Fayette and Allegheny counties.

Removal of the fluoride from water coming from Johnstown's system is “cost prohibitive,” Kerr said.

Fluoride strengthens tooth enamel, making it more resistant to acids that cause decay, advocates say.

“Nobody with any scientific credentials has ever said it's not safe,” said Dr. Bernie Dishler, president of the Pennsylvania Dental Association.

Opponents rely on “junk science,” said Dishler, a Montgomery County dentist.

Numerous studies support fluoride as a method to thwart tooth decay, said Robert Weyant, chairman of the Dental Public Health Department at the University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine. “Based on these studies, it's my opinion it's safe and effective,” he said.

Objectors cite negative research

Gallo contends the authority is treating a disease — cavities — without a medical license and without its customers' consent.

The CDC and dental associations “are not objective researchers,” Gallo said, “because they have a financial interest in the research.”

“This fluoride is one of the biggest consumer frauds in history,” said Donald Rehm, a Ligonier Township resident who uses well water. “There's no real evidence it helps anybody, and the toxicity ... is a concern.

“We never voted on this,” Rehm said.

Robert Helterbran, president of Ligonier Borough Council, said the board has not discussed the issue. It has received one mailing from a person opposed to the fluoridated water. “No one's filed a formal complaint,” he said.

No Ligonier Township residents have told supervisors they support or oppose fluoridation, said Supervisor Keith Whipkey, who uses well water.

Legislation attempts fail

Westmoreland authority board members made the decision not to add fluoride more than three decades ago, Kerr said. They will follow that policy unless forced by law to add fluoride, Kerr said.

Past bills in the Legislature to force public water companies to add fluoride have failed, including at least two attempts within the past 10 years.

“People are for or against it; there's no in-between,” Kerr said.

In January 2011, the U.S. departments of Environmental Protection and Health and Human Services told water providers to adjust the level of fluoride from 1.0 milligrams to .07 milligrams per liter “to balance the benefits of preventing tooth decay while limiting any unwanted health effects,” officials said in a statement.

“It's wise with any medicine to use the lowest dose that gets the job done,” Weyant said.

The state Department of Environmental Protection oversees water companies and tests water quarterly, including fluoride levels, said agency spokesman John Poister.

Suppliers test water daily.

“We do add fluoride. We were among the first cities in the United States to do so,” said Melissa Rubin, spokeswoman for the Greater Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, which serves about two-thirds of the city, with 83,000 water connections. “We began adding it in 1958. And we do test for fluoride daily.”

Pennsylvania American Water supplies the most public drinking water in the state. About half of its 2.2 million customers receive fluoridated water, said spokeswoman Josephine Posti.

In Southwestern Pennsylvania, American supplies nearly 250,000 customers in Allegheny, Butler, Indiana, Fayette, Washington and Armstrong counties, most with fluoride in their water.

A few communities, such as Brownsville and Connellsville in Fayette County, do not have fluoride because residents asked American decades ago not to add it, Posti said.

About 135,000 American customers in Pittsburgh and about 53,000 in Washington drink fluoridated water, she said.

Bob Stiles is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-6622 or bstiles@tribweb.com.

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