Vermont Water Department: Richmond Water and Wastewater Superintendent employee quietly reduced fluoride in water for years

Residents of a small Vermont community were taken aback last month by news that an official at their water department had quietly lowered fluoride levels nearly four years ago, sparking concerns about the their children’s dental health and government transparency – and highlighting the persistent misinformation around water fluoridation.

Katie Mather, who lives in Richmond, a town of about 4,100 people in northwestern Vermont, told a water commission meeting this week that her dentist had recently discovered the first cavities of his two children. She acknowledged that they ate a lot of sugar, but noted that her dentist had recommended against adding fluoride as city water should do the trick.

His dentist “operated and made professional recommendations based on state standards that we all assumed met, which they didn’t,” Mather said. “It’s the fact that we haven’t had a chance to give informed consent that gets to me.”

Adding fluoride to public drinking water systems has been a common practice in communities across the United States since the 1940s and 1950s, but some people are still not satisfied, and many countries do not fluoridate water to various reasons, including feasibility.

Critics argue that the health effects of fluoride are not fully known and that adding it to municipal water may amount to an undesirable drug. some communities in recent years have ended the practice. In 2015, the US government lowered the recommended amount of drinking water after some children consumed too much, causing white spots on their teeth.

Although these stains are primarily a cosmetic problem, the American Dental Association notes on its website that fluoride — along with vital substances such as salt, iron, and oxygen — can be toxic in high doses.

But in recommended amounts, fluoride in water decreases cavities or tooth decay by about 25%, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which reported in 2018 that 73% of the US population was served by water systems with enough fluoride to protect the teeth. So, for some people in Richmond, it was a shock to learn that their water did not meet the standard.

Kendall Chamberlin, superintendent of water and sewage for Richmond, told the Water and Sewer Commission in September that he had reduced the level of fluoride due to concerns about supply changes and recommended levels.

He said he was concerned about the quality control of fluoride used in US watering systems because it comes from China – a claim that echoes unsubstantiated reports of Chinese fluoride that have circulated online. these last years.

And, he said, he doesn’t think the state’s recommended level of fluoride is warranted at this time.

“My duty is to exercise reasonable care and judgment in the protection of the public health, safety and environment of my customers,” he said, adding that “erring on the side of caution n is not a bad position”.

Chamberlin did not respond to an email from The Associated Press seeking comment.

Two of the three fluoride additives that U.S. water systems can use actually come from China because they don’t have domestic manufacturers, but all go through strict standards, testing and certification to ensure safety, said CDC spokeswoman Tracy Boehmer in an email. Vermont Department of Health spokespersons agreed that all additives must meet these national standards.

Chamberlin’s decision stunned residents and physicians.

“For one person to unilaterally make the decision that this public health benefit might not be justified is inappropriate. I think it’s outrageous,” retired Dr. Allen Knowles said at the Sept. 19 meeting. . He said he had an 8-month-old granddaughter who he said was getting enough 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 simply indisputable. You don’t establish safety based on one person’s opinion or one study or this or that.”

Most water naturally contains fluoride, but usually not enough to prevent cavities.

The mineral was first added to public water in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1945. Today it is common, although it is more prevalent in some states than others. According to the United Health Foundation, Oregon, New Jersey and Hawaii have the lowest percentage of residents with fluoridated water.

Fluoride is also added to toothpaste and other topical products and is found in some foods.

In sparsely populated and largely rural Vermont, 29 of 465 public water systems fluoridate voluntarily, and just over half of residents served by a public system get fluoridated water, according to the U.S. Department of Health. Vermont. The state standard level is based on federal recommendations.

Cities that fluoridate must keep levels within state guidelines and submit monthly reports to the state Department of Health.

The former state fluoride program manager, who retired in 2019, had tried to work with Chamberlin and his team in Richmond, “and things were going to get better for a while, but come back down,” Robin Miller, director of the Office of Oral Health, wrote in an email to the AP.

Miller said she didn’t realize the city’s fluoride count had been consistently low for so long until March of this year. After a site visit by the state in April, levels did not improve, so Miller contacted the Richmond city manager in June, who asked her to attend the meeting in September, she said. declared.

At the second meeting on Monday, the one where Katie Mather raised concerns about her children’s teeth, Chamberlin — who doesn’t live in town and appeared online — read a statement of apology.

“Words cannot express how sorry I am for causing this controversy,” he said. “Believe me when I say I always had good intentions based on a misunderstanding. I promise I will make sure nothing like this happens again.”

A former Richmond employee who worked under Chamberlin pointed out that the monthly report was reviewed by the city manager and forwarded to the state.

“He’s not just a guy who does what he wants. He takes those reports to his boss, who signs them off,” said Erik Bailey, now Johnson’s village manager.

City Manager Josh Arneson said Chamberlin or other staff always told him the levels were acceptable. He said he first heard from the state in June about the consistently low levels.

The commission voted to return the water to full fluoridation. It’s unclear if anyone could face professional repercussions; personnel matters were discussed behind closed doors.

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