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Water fluoridation debate reignites across Western Pennsylvania

Rich Cholodofsky
| Sunday, March 15, 2015, 10:42 p.m.
Relief operator Tom McCabe walks through the George S. Sweeney Water Treatment Plant on Thursday, March 12, 2015.
Sean Stipp | Trib Total Media
Relief operator Tom McCabe walks through the George S. Sweeney Water Treatment Plant on Thursday, March 12, 2015.
Relief operator Tom McCabe conducts water quality tests in the George S. Sweeney Water Treatment Plant at the Beaver Run Reservoir on Thursday, March 12, 2015.
Sean Stipp | Trib Total Media
Relief operator Tom McCabe conducts water quality tests in the George S. Sweeney Water Treatment Plant at the Beaver Run Reservoir on Thursday, March 12, 2015.
Distribution pumps send water from the George S. Sweeney Water Treatment Plant at the Beaver Run Reservoir to the public on Thursday, March 12, 2015.
Sean Stipp | Trib Total Media
Distribution pumps send water from the George S. Sweeney Water Treatment Plant at the Beaver Run Reservoir to the public on Thursday, March 12, 2015.

Debates come and go, but there's one — the seven-decades-old battle over fluoridating drinking water — that appears to be rekindling in Western Pennsylvania.

Officials in Brackenridge were set to remove fluoride from the town's water supply a few weeks ago.

Then the borough's switchboard began to light up.

“At first, we were going to do it for the health of our employees (who handle the fluoride), but after it hit the papers, we got a lot of negative comments from the public,” said Councilman Timothy Kolar. “I think we're just going to wait a while and have another meeting down the road.”

In Ford City, a move by council to eliminate fluoride when a new water treatment plant opens sparked public debate, dueling letters to the editor and passionate social media chatter. Despite it all, council decided late last year to eliminate fluoride.

“(Some council members) felt fluoride is not necessary in the water, that we should not be forcefully medicating the public,” borough Manager Eden Ratliff said.

It's a fervent discussion that dates back to the 1940s, when researchers found people living where water supplies had naturally occurring fluoride at certain levels had fewer dental cavities than those living in areas with lower levels.

In the ensuing years, proponents and opponents squared off, sometimes straying from talk of health benefits and risks to ethical discussions about the government imposing its will by treating public water supplies.

The issue seems to be resurfacing across the nation.

A bitter debate swirled this month when Dallas officials voted not to remove fluoride from the city's water, while boards in Sonoma, Calif., and Bennington, Vt., voted against adding it.

Fluoridation is taking its place next to vaccinations as a chief concern among parents, said Elizabeth Bjerke, assistant professor of health policy and management at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, as well as associate director for Law and Policy, Center for Public Health Practice.

“These two issues affect children, and as parents, we want what's best for our children. But it's really important to look at the science behind the policy,” Bjerke said. “Just like vaccinations, fluoride is not 100 percent safe, but the dangers don't outweigh the benefits.”

She said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently named vaccinations and fluoridation as two of the most important public health advances in the past century.

State's statistics

Bonnie Kautz, 80, of Apollo, a vocal proponent of fluoridation, is critical of her water supplier, the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County, for not using the chemical.

“In Pennsylvania, anyone who wants to take it out, it doesn't make sense. Fluoride is a benefit to children; it helps their teeth. I don't see where it causes any problems,” said Kautz, a registered nurse and wife of a dentist who most recently urged Ford City officials to reconsider removing fluoride from the water.

Proponents such as Kautz don't like the state's fluoridation numbers:

• Pennsylvania ranks 40th in the nation for the number of residents who drink water from fluoridated systems, according to the CDC.

• About 54 percent of the state's 10.7 million residents drink fluoridated water, statistics from the state Department of Environmental Protection show. Nationally, 74.6 percent of Americans drink water treated with fluoride, the CDC said.

Lisa Daniels, director of the state's Bureau of Safe Water, said the commonwealth has not taken a position on the issue other than to determine that fluoridation at proper levels is not dangerous.

“We want to say we're neutral on the issue. If it's something that a municipality wants, then our role is to be sure it's added safely,” Daniels said. “From what the science tells us, it's safe.”

Dueling camps

Dentists say removing fluoride from drinking water has a serious downside.

Dr. Alicia Risner Bauman, a Tioga County dentist speaking for the American Dental Association, said decades of science show fluoride improves and hardens tooth enamel.

“I have been treating patients for 20 years, and in patients with non-fluoridated water, tooth decay is huge in those areas,” Bauman said.

But Carol Kopf of FluorideAlert.org, a national organization against fluoride, tells a different story.

“Fluoride was added to the water in 1945 when, essentially, it was thought that children needed it to get into their teeth. Fluoride is not a nutrient, and it is not essential now. It doesn't strengthen teeth,” the group's spokeswoman said.

Studies revealed children receive enough fluoride in toothpaste, supplements and other products, she said.

Who adds it?

The state's largest water providers in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia fluoridate water supplies, but in both cities, websites and Facebook pages for and against the practice are up and running.

Chris Kerr, manager of the state's largest public water system that does no fluoridate — the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County — said that adding the chemical was never part of the equation for the utility, which serves more than 400,000 people in five counties.

“There are decidedly two camps. It's like gun control: There's no middle ground,” Kerr said.

His authority has no plans to add fluoride for customers, but it has some who already receive the chemical in their water.

The authority purchases water from the Greater Johnstown water system that is piped to customers in Ligonier. That water is fluoridated. And starting next year, the agency will sell water to customers in Monroeville and Plum who receive fluoride in their water and will continue to do so.

Strategy for savings

Some cash-strapped towns in the region began talking about removing fluoride to save money.

In Brackenridge, eliminating fluoride would save about $4,000 a year. The system serves about 5,900 customers.

The same was true in Ford City, a borough of slightly more than 2,900 that is dangerously close to being taken over by the state.

But Bauman of the dental association wants local officials to think twice before acting.

“Towns might be saving money (by eliminating fluoride), but the residents will still pay more to fix their tooth decay,” she said.

Mike Ewall, founder of the Energy Justice Network in Philadelphia, which lobbies against water fluoridation, said he believes the tide is turning in Pennsylvania.

“People don't want toxic waste in their water. Most folks fighting against it are concerned for their public health and the environment,” he said.

Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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