Should Cortland fluoridate its water supply?

CORTLAND, N.Y. — Sixteen years ago, the city of Cortland considered fluoridating its water supply to reduce tooth decay and improve oral health in the community.

On Tuesday, the hotly debated topic resurfaced when members of Cortland Common Council discussed applying for a $50,000 grant from the New York State Department of Health that would examine whether or not the city’s infrastructure is equipped to handle water fluoridation.

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Nine people spoke out against fluoridating the city’s water supply during a public comment session at Tuesday’s meeting, citing research which suggests that fluoride can have toxic effects on the developing brain.

Health experts have disagreed for decades on whether putting fluoride in drinking water is harmful to children and adults.

Paul Connett, a retired professor of chemistry and toxicology and author of “The Case Against Fluoride,” appeared at Tuesday’s Common Council meeting and urged council members to consider the New York State Department of Health’s position on water fluoridation if they choose to apply for the grant.

Paul Connett. Photo courtesy of American Environmental Health Studies Project.

Paul Connett. Photo courtesy of American Environmental Health Studies Project.

“If [the study] is financed by the department of health in New York state, they are very, very pro-fluoridation, and the conclusion will be a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Connett said.

Dr. Timothy Schaub, a practicing chiropractor in Cortland who has a master’s degree in clinical nutrition, said excessive quantities of fluoride can be dangerous to diabetic patients and people with kidney disease.

“When fluoride is put into your system, the kidneys have to work twice as hard to get rid of it,” Schaub said.

Despite its potential health risks, fluoridating water remains a widespread practice in major cities across the U.S., including New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago, though some cities have decided to ban water fluoridation.

Making the case for water fluoridation

Tiffany Kerns, a registered dental hygienist in Cortland, is part of a coalition that formed last year “to address the oral health needs of the community.”

In Cortland County, 50.1 percent of third graders have had tooth decay or a cavity, Kerns said, while 23.5 percent of third graders in the county currently have untreated cavities.

“I can promise you that optimum fluoridated water has 70-year, science-backed results,” Kerns said at Tuesday's Common Council meeting.

National organizations including the American Dental Association, the Mayo Clinic and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have advocated for water fluoridation.

Related: 6 questions about Ithaca's decades-long fluoride debate

Mike Ryan, director of environmental health at the Cortland County Health Department, said the state grant would allow the city to study the technical feasibility of adding fluoride to its water supply.

Common Council briefly discussed the possibility of holding a public forum on the topic prior to the Feb. 28 grant deadline, though that idea was later abandoned given the short time frame.

Council members elected not to pursue the grant or a public forum before adjourning at its Tuesday meeting.

This isn’t the first time the city has considered putting fluoride in its water supply. In 2003, city officials pulled a proposed water fluoridation plan after health concerns were raised by residents and local health providers.

Alderman Thomas Michales recalled sitting in on those city hall meetings, where the issue was fiercely debated.

“I see the atmosphere hasn’t changed since 16 years ago, there are still just as many people against it,” Michales said Tuesday. “I’ve heard your story 16 years ago, and I’ve listened to you tonight.”

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