RICHMOND, Vt. — Residents of Richmond, Vermont, a town of about 4,100, were blindsided last month by news that one official in their water department quietly lowered fluoride levels nearly four years ago.
The VTDigger reports that town manager Josh Arneson said he was notified by state officials in June that for the last three years, Richmond’s fluoride levels have been near 0.3 milligrams per liter. That’s less than half of what’s recommended by both the Vermont Department of Public Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I am concerned about the lack of transparency about the fluoride levels being lower than those set by the Community Water Fluoridation program, which Richmond is listed as participating in,” Arneson said in an email, according to the Digger.
Katie Mather, who lives in Richmond, said at a water commission meeting this week that her dentist recently found her two kids’ first cavities. She 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.”
It was revealed during a Sept. 19 meeting of the Richmond Water and Sewer Commission that Water Superintendent Kendall Chamberlin had decided to set fluoride levels far lower than community members realized, the VTDigger wrote.
Chamberlin, in a statement given remotely, apologized to the community and promised to make sure “nothing like this ever happens again.”
He did not respond to an Associated Press email seeking comment.
Seven Days, which first reported on the water issues, said Chamberlin told commissioners he made the decision to reduce fluoride levels because “a couple” of water system users told him they were against fluoridation. Chamberlin said he preferred to be “ahead of the curve.”
He also said he doesn’t think the state’s recommended level of fluoride is warranted right now.
In Seven Days, Chamberlin denied doing anything secretive.
“As an operator, every time I make an operating decision, I don’t tell everybody about it,” the publication quoted him as saying.
The addition of fluoride to public drinking water systems has been routine in communities across the United States since the 1940s and 1950s.
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 — along with life-giving substances including salt, iron and oxygen — can be toxic in large doses.
But in the recommended amounts, fluoride in water decreases cavities or tooth decay by about 25%, per the CDC, 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.
“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. Knowles said he has an 8-month-old granddaughter he thought was getting adequately fluoridated water.
Most water naturally contains some fluoride, but typically not enough to prevent cavities.
The mineral was first added to public water in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1945. Now it’s commonplace, although more prevalent in some states than others.
Fluoride is added to toothpaste and other topical products and is in some foods.
In sparsely populated and largely rural Vermont, 29 of the 465 public water systems voluntarily fluoridate, and just over half of residents served by a public system get fluoridated water, according to the Vermont Department of Health. The state’s standard level is based on federal recommendations.
Towns that fluoridate must maintain levels within the state’s recommendations and submit monthly reports to the state Health Department.
A former Richmond employee who worked under Chamberlin pointed out the monthly report is reviewed by the town manager and goes to the state.
“It’s not just one guy doing what he wants. He’s bringing these reports to his boss, who signs them,” said Erik Bailey, now the village manager in Johnson.
The Richmond Water and Sewer Commission voted to return the water to full fluoridation. It’s not clear whether anyone could face professional repercussions; personnel issues were discussed in a closed session.