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Voters reject fluoridation of city water

By Steven A. Rosenberg
Globe Staff / November 20, 2011

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The process of adding fluoride into the municipal drinking water supply is supposed to be simple, say Amesbury city officials. But since 2005, the powdered sodium fluoride has clogged filters at the city’s water plant, puzzling city workers who have been unable to determine why.

Earlier this month, Amesbury residents voted to eliminate the city’s water fluoridation program. The service began more than 40 years ago but has been discontinued since 2009, after growing concerns about the clogging and about the inability to measure just how much fluoride officials were adding into the drinking water.

“Given the current political climate in the country, I was not surprised that people would say I would rather make the choice myself than get it from the municipal water system,’’ said Amesbury Mayor Thatcher Kezer III.

Kezer, who remained neutral on the fluoride question during the election, said he supports the use of fluoride to prevent dental disease and tooth decay, but believes there are enough alternative fluoride sources available to residents - such as receiving it in toothpaste, in over-the-counter treatment kits, and at dental visits.

While most area communities add fluoride to their drinking water, several in the Globe North region have declined. Communities not adding fluoride include Georgetown, Merrimac, Methuen, Rowley, and North Chelmsford.

Jennifer Manley, a Department of Public Health spokeswoman, said 141 Massachusetts communities add fluoride to water. Manley said the state does not approve vendors who sell fluoride to municipalities. She also said that Amesbury was the only city in the state that has complained about fluoride clogging. “We have not received complaints from any other Massachusetts community about the powder coagulating,’’ she said.

Amesbury’s Department of Public Works director, Rob Desmarais, said that six years ago, powdered fluoride purchased from China began clogging the plant and leaving a residue. “We just wanted to get a good supply or end the use,’’ said Desmarais, who added that most of the powdered fluoride is now shipped from China and Japan. He said since the earthquake struck Japan earlier this year, its supply has decreased, leaving China as the main supplier.

Until 2009, the city purchased its powdered fluoride from Solvay, an international industrial and chemical company. Solvay officials could not be reached for comment about the fluoride sold to Amesbury.

The vote came just weeks before Amesbury will unveil its newly renovated, $16 million water filtration plant. Kezer said one of the main reasons for the vote was to gauge residents’ interest in retrofitting the upgraded plant to distribute liquefied fluoride. That retrofit would cost $250,000, said Kezer, but is unlikely to happen now given the vote results.

The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, which is the source of water for dozens of municipalities in the Boston area, uses liquefied fluoride that comes from North Carolina.

Residents said factors that led to the vote included fluoride clogging at the plant, unknown levels of fluoride that had been in the Amesbury water prior to 2009, and a general feeling that a community should be allowed to make its own decision on the matter. The vote overrode the original 1967 vote that led to the municipality adding fluoride to its water.

Christopher Martel, who helped lead an opposition campaign against fluoride, believes fluoride does more harm than good. “It is freedom of choice,’’ he said after the vote.

Across town, residents expressed mixed feelings about the vote. Amesbury Board of Health chairwoman Amy Courtney said she supports the safe use of fluoride in the city’s water system, saying that the practice is endorsed by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Before this month’s election, the board recommended that Amesbury safely implement a fluoride program in its water supply.

At an ice cream shop next to Town Hall, John Pouliot said the drinking water has improved since the town stopped adding fluoride two years ago.

“I enjoy drinking the water now,’’ he said. “I always thought it tasted funny before, and I used to buy bottled water.’’

At a nearby table, Christine MacIntyre held her 7-month-old daughter and said she opposed the city adding fluoride to the water. “I think that the less that they’re adding to our water source, the better,’’ said MacIntyre, who uses fluoride mouthwash and gets a fluoride prescription for her daughter.

Still, she wondered if a fluoride prescription would have the same impact as properly injected fluoride in the water supply. “I don’t know if it will have the same effect of her drinking it as a toddler,’’ she said.

Dr. Charles Silvius, a Revere dentist and president of the Massachusetts Dental Society, called communal fluoridation a necessity in preventing tooth decay.

“It’s all about prevention,’’ said Silvius. “If you can prevent the disease from occurring, it’s a lot easier than treating the disease.’’

Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at Follow him on Twitter@WriteRosenberg.