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Town employee quietly lowered fluoride in water for years

By Lisa Rathke

The Associated Press

RICHMOND, VT. » 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 in northwestern Vermont, said at a water commission meeting this week that her dentist recently found her two kids’ first cavities. She acknowledged they eat a lot of sugar but noted that her dentist recommended against 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 1950s but still doesn’t sit well with some people.

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 U.S. 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 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 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which reported in 2018 that 73% of the U.S. population was served by water systems with adequate fluoride to protect teeth. So for some people in Richmond, it was a shock to hear their water wasn’t meeting the standard.

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.

He said he worries about quality control in the fluoride used in U.S. drinking systems because it comes from China — an assertion that echoes unfounded reports about Chinese fluoride that have circulated online in recent years.

And, he said, he doesn’t think the state’s recommended level of fluoride is warranted right 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 U.S. 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, CDC spokesperson Tracy Boehmer said in an email.

Chamberlin’s decision flabbergasted residents and doctors.

“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. He said he has an 8-monthold granddaughter he thought was getting adequately fluoridated water.

“Fluoride, again, is one of the most successful and important public health measures that has ever been undertaken in this country,” Knowles said. “The reduction in dental disease is just inarguable. You don’t establish safety based on one person’s opinion or one study or this or that.”

 

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