Health Care

Richmond residents ‘gobsmacked’ after town employee lowers fluoride levels with no oversight

While the lesser level of fluoride in the town’s water will not cause immediate harm, community water fluoridation is “an important foundational preventive measure” that has benefits over a long period of time, according to a state official. Photo by Nithin PA via Pexels

Residents are concerned a town employee arbitrarily lowered the fluoride level in Richmond’s drinking water below recommended standards based on his personal beliefs.

Town Manager Josh Arneson said he was notified by state officials in June that the town’s fluoride levels have been near 0.3 milligrams per liter for the past three years — less than half of the 0.7 milligrams per liter recommended by the Vermont Department of Health and 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.

Robin Miller, oral health director at the state health department’s Office of Oral Health, said she was alerted to the lowered level earlier this year even though data submitted shows the town water as being properly fluorinated since 1983. Concerned from a public health perspective, Miller first notified Kendall Chamberlin, who serves as Richmond’s water resource superintendent, in April.

“I still didn’t see any improvement,” Miller said. “So I think in June, I reached out to the town manager to express my concern.”

No changes or repercussions have followed. Town officials will further discuss the matter at Monday’s water commission meeting, Arneson said.

Asked why it took almost three months since he was notified for the town to publicly address the matter, which was first reported by Seven Days, Arneson said, “The timing of the town’s response was reasonable under the circumstances.”

The discussion drew concerns and criticism at a spirited water and sewer commission meeting on Sept. 19, where Chamberlin defended his decision to lower the fluoride level in the town water to less than half of what’s recommended.

“The science is consistently showing less is better,” he said, contending that research on fluoride levels was outdated and raising questions around quality control behind fluoride manufacturing in China. He said fluoridation is voluntary in Vermont, paid for by the state and several towns choose to not add it to their water supply.

Chamberlin, who also sits on the Essex Selectboard, did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday. Employed since 1985, he became superintendent in 1988 and draws a salary of about $97,000, town officials said.

While unwilling to discuss Chamberlin’s personnel records, Arneson said he has no reason to believe he had any ill intent in the performance of his job duties.

Screenshot of the water and sewer commission meeting in Richmond on Sept. 19, 2022. Courtesy of Mount Mansfield Community Television

Residents upset

A Richmond resident for two years and a retired doctor, Allen Knowles said he was “fairly gobsmacked” to learn the fluoride level was inadequate by state standards and manipulated by an individual without town approval.

“I personally think it’s very concerning,” he said. 

He and his daughter’s family are worried about the health of her 8-month-old who “is developing her permanent teeth up in her gums as we speak,” he said. 

“We thought that she had been getting fluoridated water since birth and she has not,” he said. “Well, she has not been getting a therapeutic dose. She has been getting an inadequate dose.”

Paul Parker, a pediatrician in Richmond, said the science supporting fluoridation is clear. He was upset to learn he has been treating patients under the belief that they are receiving the appropriate amount of fluoride and had not been prescribing supplements.

“Why do we fluoridate water in Richmond? Is there a mandate? Is this Kendall’s or another body’s decision?” he asked commissioners at last week’s meeting.

Oral disease: ‘A silent epidemic’

National survey data indicates that prevention of tooth decay can be maintained at the recommended level of 0.7 milligrams of fluoride per liter of drinking water. Basically, the naturally occurring mineral helps “to prevent tooth decay in children and adults while reducing the risk for children to develop dental fluorosis,” according to the CDC

While the lesser level of fluoride in the town’s water will not cause immediate harm, community water fluoridation is “an important foundational preventive measure” that has benefits over a long period of time, Miller said. Without the additive, the public is “missing out on the benefit,” she said.

But it is not an enforceable federal regulation and communities can make their own decisions on whether or not to fluoridate their water supplies.

Miller said Vermont has fewer fluoridated systems than most states. But those that participate in the state’s fluoridation program are expected to maintain the recommended level of fluoride in their water systems. 

Chart from Vermont’s Guide to Fluoride Levels in Public Water Systems 2021 Edition

Of the 465 public water systems in Vermont, 29 adjust the fluoride level, 361 do not and five have naturally sufficient fluoride levels. About 56% of Vermont residents served by a public water system are receiving fluoridated water, according to state data from 2020.

In 2018, 73% of the U.S. population — or more than 200 million people — had access to fluoridated water through their community water systems, according to CDC data.

Richmond's water system has been participating in the state’s fluoridation program since 1983 and serves about 1,000 residents.

“I think what sometimes gets lost in the conversation about fluoride is that oral disease is a silent epidemic in our state and nation,” Miller said, adding that it overwhelmingly affects people from lower socio-economic groups.

Just like preventive measures like seatbelts, airbags and safe driving laws prevent injury in car accidents, “fluoridation is a really important preventive measure to prevent dental decay in communities. And in some cases, it might be the only preventive that some people have,” she said.

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Auditi Guha

About Auditi

Auditi is Chittenden County editor at VTDigger. Originally from Calcutta, India, she graduated from Emerson College with an MA in journalism. She has worked as an editor and reporter for several newspapers, and in various beats. Most recently, she covered race and justice at Rewire.News, and higher education at the New Bedford Standard-Times. She previously worked at several Massachusetts newsrooms. She is a mentor for young reporters through the Report For America program, founded the Boston chapter of the South Asian Journalists Association, and is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Email: aguha@vtdigger.org

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