Possible addition of fluoride to Meadville area water prompts community discussion

The Meadville Area Water Authority anticipates voting on the issue of adding fluoride to the public water supply sometime in 2015, following the completion of the two new water towers on Highland Avenue. Despite the fact that the five-member water authority board will vote on the matter alone, the topic of fluoridation may be one that should be more widely discussed, according to some community members.

The initiative for fluoridation began with a committee created from members of the Meadville Medical Center, the Meadville school districts and members of Allegheny College, called the Community Initiative for Improved Dental Health. The Meadville Member Center’s Community Health Assessment from 2011-2012, available online, stated oral health as the biggest need in the community.

“The prioritized items to be addressed are as follows; 1. Address oral health problems through improved access to Dental Care for low income and uninsured persons in the Meadville area. Develop plans for improved prevention of future oral health problems,” the report stated.

Further, data collected for this report showed that no water source in the area naturally provided what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health cite as the optimal dose of fluoride to prevent tooth decay: 0.7 milligrams per liter.

From this, an initiative for fluoridation of the Meadville area water supply began, including strong effort and involvement from Allegheny College, according to Dave Roncolato, director of civic engagement in the Allegheny Gateway.

“We’ve had students under Caryl Waggett’s [associate professor of environmental science] supervision, they did the research and created a packet on fluoridation [during the 2012-2013 academic year],” Roncolato said. “We had a documentary on fluoride that was created by a communication arts student.”

In a May 14, 2013 letter from President of Allegheny College James Mullen to the Meadville Area Water Authority, support for the fluoridation efforts were stated.

“I support the collaborative efforts of the College, the Meadville Medical Center, regional pediatricians, regional dental practitioners, regional early childhood and elementary educators and other concerned citizens to fluoride our public water supply…Allegheny College supports public water fluoridation in Meadville…,” Mullen wrote.

This letter was written to acknowledge the support that Allegheny’s involvement in the community’s movement to fluoridate the water.

“Our support for the fluoridation effort grows from our involvement in the Meadville Area Cooperative (MAC). The MAC is a signature initiative for Allegheny, the Medical Center, the school system and others who are committed to the health of our community,” Mullen said in an e-mail interview. “My letter of support emanates from our commitment to these opportunities as well as our commitment to MAC.”

In support of fluoridation, Roncolato cites the petition that student’s helped circulate around the Meadville community, garnering over 1,000 signatures in support of fluoridating the water supply.

Many national science and health organizations support water fluoridation including the CDC, the NIH and the Surgeon General but while the World Health Organization supports fluoride when limited to its optimal dose, it warns that excessive fluoride can lead to adverse skeletal health.

Roncolato feels that there is significant support in the Meadville community for water fluoridation, but acknowledges the Meadville area still has individuals who are against the fluoridation of the public water supply, local chiropractor Christopher Knapp being among them.

“Primarily, from my opinion and a lot of other people who think along the lines that I do, it should stop at medical ethics,” Knapp said. “When you have fluoride in the water, there’s no informed consent…and I think that the argument stops there.”

However, Roncolato believes that not fluoridating the water is keeping a societal good from being realized.

“Personally, I think it’s cruel to deny something that will really benefit children, especially those most marginalized by poverty in our community, by denying them an easily affordable fluoridation which would not completely eliminate the need for other forms of oral health, but really complement those other initiatives underway,” Roncolato said.

Regardless both Roncolato and Matt Zaborowski, ’17, co-president of the Allegheny Pre-Dental Club, acknowledge the voice of the opposition in the matter.

“There’s this [pro-]fluoride group and then there’s this opposition group which is a pretty big thing,” Zaborowski said.

Despite fundamental differences in conviction, both sides agree on the necessity of additional health care aside from water fluoridation.

“My fear is if we vote to have fluoride put in the water, they’ll think, ‘okay, we’ve done something, we’re going to go on with our lives and the problem of access to care is going to be ignored,’” Knapp said.  “This is easy, fluoride is easy. Access to care is hard…The problem is access to care, these kids can’t get in to see a dentist so let’s give them fluoride? Fluoride isn’t health care, you have to educate people.”

Zaborowski acknowledges the need for dental care as a supplement in providing fluoride in the water supply.

“Every child needs to see a dentist and get dental care, that needs to happen. But a good way to help those that maybe can’t go on a regular basis is to have fluoride,” Zaborowski said. “I think it’s more beneficial to implement it in than to not. By us not doing it, there’s a greater number of people that are not seeing improved dental health and Meadville has a wide variety of socio-economic status.”

Aside from access to care, Roncolato considers personal responsibility and initiative as part of the process of education as well.

“It’s not, in and of itself, a sufficient solution to all oral health,” Roncolato said. “Putting fluoride in the water is not going to alleviate the need for people taking responsibility for their own oral health but it’s going to help, especially marginalized populations in our community.”

Dissenters, though, believe more open and honest discussion needs to occur before Meadville’s five individuals on the MAWA council vote on the decision, given that it is a controversial topic with approximately equal support on both sides, according to Zaborowski.

“I would like to see Allegheny lead the discussion and I would really like to see…the Meadville residents to hear it too,” Knapp said. “It’s nice for there to be discussion up here on the hill, but if it doesn’t trickle down, I think there’s just an imbalance in the information to the public.”

Further, Knapp questions Allegheny’s move in declaring support from the institution as a whole in the letter Mullen sent to the MAWA.

“I can tell you, just as a Meadville resident, for President Mullen’s hand to reach beyond Loomis Street and the borders of the college, really into everyone’s home, I’m not sure that that really falls under the realm of the description of what a college president should do,” Knapp said. “I just think he has overstepped his boundaries and he’s got a lot of professors on campus: how can he say Allegheny supports it? It just seems like it’s highly unusual for a college president to publicly endorse something that’s so contentious.”

While the CDC’s 2012 water fluoridation statistics, the most recent ones available online, state that 74.6 percent of the U.S.’s population drinks fluoridated water, only 54.6 percent of Pennsylvanian residents do.