Wellesley’s Great Fluoridation Debate

The following article appeared in the Wellesley Townsman on July 9, 2015.

“Don’t confuse us with that scientific mumbo jumbo. We know the truth.”

For the proponents of fluoridation — that is, the addition of a small dose of fluoride to the public water supply in order to improve dental health — these words reflected their view of the opposition.

On the flipside, the anti-fluoridationists couldn’t fathom why the supporters of fluoridation would purposefully poison the town’s only available drinking water.

There have been few battles in Wellesley’s history as contentious as the one regarding fluoridation. For over 30 years, it pitted neighbor against neighbor and friend against friend. And yet throughout this long debate — which more or less ended in 1987 with the implementation of fluoridation — few people really seemed able to understand both sides all that well.

It began in 1951, when the Wellesley Board of Health made a seemingly innocuous recommendation that the Town consider fluoridating its water supply. The reason? Simply to prevent tooth decay. At the time, dental hygiene was nothing compared to what it is today. Roughly 95% of the population had some combination of missing, decayed, or filled teeth. Indeed, tooth decay was the second most common disease behind the common cold.

According to research scientists, by adding enough fluoride to the drinking water to raise the overall level to 1 part per million (ppm), you could decrease tooth decay — especially in children — by more than 50%. (The fluoride combines with enamel during tooth development to form a more resistant barrier to demineralization. Furthermore, once a tooth has fully developed, the fluoride acts to increase the rate of remineralization, thus decreasing the likelihood of cavities. It’s the reason why toothpaste’s active ingredient is some fluoride compound.) Recognizing the value of fluoridation, numerous organizations including the United States Public Health Service, the American Dental Association, and the American Medical Association all supported its adoption.

Despite these endorsements, the Wellesley Board of Health was hit with immediate pushback by residents who refused to accept the assessments of these professional and governmental organizations that attested to the safety of fluoridation. What about the long-term physiological effects? Isn’t fluoride a poison?

The most common argument against fluoridation, however, was one of liberty and individual rights. How dare Town officials force medication on unwilling citizens! Access to pure water is a basic right, and tampering with it is unconstitutional.

In addition, isn’t fluoridation completely unnecessary? Couldn’t the Town offer residents fluoride tablets and leave the water supply alone?

This opposition only incensed the supporters of fluoridation. Doesn’t overwhelming scientific consensus hold any value in society? What about the fact that water in the central United States contains upwards of 5 ppm of natural fluoride yet residents there are perfectly healthy? How could 1 ppm of fluoride pose any danger?

With such division among the residents, as well as the inability to find any middle ground in this issue, it’s no surprise that a vote at Annual Town Meeting in 1953 was tabled and instead a committee was formed to study the matter further. But even the favorable recommendation by this committee couldn’t bring the residents together. The following year, a fluoridation proposal was overwhelmingly defeated at Town Meeting, winning only 33% support. Then, in 1958, it lost again — albeit by just 15 votes.

Wellesley was not alone in its rejection of fluoridation. In fact, numerous cities and towns throughout the region voted against it for similar reasons. Even the communities that accepted fluoridation faced lawsuits from angry residents. It was because of this controversy that the Commonwealth passed a law in 1958 preventing the adoption of fluoridation through a representative town meeting, requiring instead the favorable vote of a town-wide referendum.

This was a nightmare for fluoridation advocates. One of the primary reasons Wellesley had changed to a representational form of Town Meeting in 1937 was that the average citizen was not engaged enough to cast an informed vote on an issue. Now that the fate of fluoridation was in the hands of the populace, it became exceedingly difficult to explain its benefits and disprove the widespread misinformation that existed all over town. Not surprisingly, a 1961 referendum on fluoridation lost by a margin of 2 to 1.

The next time the fluoridation debate reared its ugly head was in 1969, the year after the passage of yet another state law. This time, given the greater confidence of the scientific and medical communities that fluoride was indeed safe, a municipal board of health was now empowered to order the fluoridation of the water supply if it saw fit. And the only way for the residents to stop that action was to win a repeal referendum initiated by obtaining signatures of 10% of the registered voters within 90 days of the order.

Wellesley’s Board of Health immediately took advantage of this new law when it — along with the Board of Public Works, who would actually oversee the installation and maintenance of the fluoridation system within the pumping stations — voted in favor of fluoridating Wellesley’s water. Fluoridation began in October 1969.

It was short lived. As expected, the anti-fluoridationists gathered enough signatures to force a referendum on the issue in March 1970. This repeal vote passed by just 27 votes, ending fluoridation five months after it began.

That vote silenced the fluoridation debate for the next 14 years. But it wasn’t dead. In 1984, the Board of Health once again voted to fluoridate the town’s water. This time, however, the repeal referendum lost, with only 46% voting against fluoridation. Three years later, the installation of the fluoridation equipment was complete, and our water has been enriched with fluoride ever since.

Wellesley may have put the fluoridation debate to bed, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t an issue elsewhere. Google “fluoridation” and you’ll see just how contentious it still is.

On one hand, prominent scientific and governmental organizations make stronger than ever recommendations that cities and towns put fluoride in their water supplies. Even the Centers for Disease Control lists fluoridation as one of the ten greatest public health achievements of the 20th Century, a list that also includes immunization, motor-vehicle safety, and warning against the dangers of tobacco use.

Yet numerous scientists and health professionals have recently raised serious concerns about the safety of fluoride. Many experts now believe that we are consuming too much fluoride. Several communities in Massachusetts are even looking into whether they should stop or reduce the fluoridation of their water supplies.

Given the controversy that many of these cities and towns faced passing fluoridation the first time, surely these new debates are going to be just as tense.