The public health benefits of adding fluoride to the town water supply were explained and debated at a forum in Edgartown Thursday night attended by dentists, medical professionals, elected officials and town residents.

Held at the Edgartown Library, the town-sponsored forum was called in advance of an Edgartown town vote on community fluoridation on the April 12 town ballot.

Dr. Dennis Golden, a pediatric dentist, gave graphic account of dental disease in Island children. — Mark Alan Lovewell

Last November, after the town board of health voted to add fluoride to the town water supply, members of the water commission and some residents successfully petitioned to put the question on the town ballot this spring.

The Thursday forum featured a panel led by Dr. David S. Samuels, an Island periodontist, Dr. Bruce Golden, an Island pediatric dentist, Dr. Sonya Stevens, Dr. Garrett Orazem, an Island dentist and member of the Edgartown board of health, and Matt Poole, the town health agent.

The Rev. Vincent (Chip) Seadale of St. Andrew’s Parish moderated.

Dr. Golden and Dr. Samuels spoke about the benefits of community fluoridation, especially on the Island.

“The overall dental health of children on the Island is poor compared to the general population,” Dr. Golden said, showing pictures of child dental patients with severe cavities on a screen.

He said everyone pays for the costs of treating dental disease, not just patients. More dental disease means higher dental insurance rates and premiums for the community, the dentist said. And fluoride doesn’t just benefit children whose teeth are growing, but also older adults looking to keep their teeth.

Dr. Samuels said fluoride is one of the most common minerals on the planet and found in almost every water source. He explained the process: when fluoride is ingested while teeth are forming, the mineral is incorporated into the teeth enamel, making them harder and less susceptible to decay.

He described the optimal amount for preventing tooth decay as .7 parts per million, the same amount proposed for the Edgartown water supply.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 74 per cent of the U.S. population receives fluoridated water from community water systems, The CDC considers water fluoridation to be the most effective way of delivering fluoride to the public and says it reduces tooth decay by 25 per cent in children and adults.

Mr. Poole outlined the financial benefits of fluoridation and how many homes it would serve based on residential town water service accounts. He said roughly 2,745 year-round Edgartown residents are on town water. He calculated that after the $640,000 cost to fluoridate the municipal water supply, the town can expect yearly savings of $20 per person, or $54,900, equal to 183 dental procedures costing $300.

Debra Gaines expressed worry over the effects of fluoride on general human health. — Mark Alan Lovewell

Though the forum was billed primarily as a listening session, residents weighed in with concerns. A common theme was the ability of parents to make their own decisions about the dental health of their children.

“My wife and I make sure my kids take care of their teeth,” said Ken Ivory who opposes fluoridation. He said neither of his children have cavities despite growing up without fluoridation, and he called fluoride a corrosive poison.

Town resident Debra Gaines expressed worry over the effects of fluoride on the whole body, not just teeth.

“I feel like you’re not sharing all the information that’s available,” Ms. Gaines told the panel.

Jim Joyce was also wary of fluoride’s long-term effects on human health.

“We don’t know what it’s doing to our whole bodies when we ingest it,” said Mr. Joyce.

“We do,” Dr. Samuels said. “Nothing.”

A few people suggested that the town instead allocate more funding for Vineyard Smiles, a free dental clinic administered by the Vineyard Health Care Access program for people with low and moderate incomes or other barriers to dental care.

Oak Bluffs is the only town on the Island that currently adds fluoride to the water supply. Dentists on the panel offered anecdotal evidence of an oral health gap between Oak Bluffs and the five other Island towns.

“There’s no question that Oak Bluffs kids have much better teeth than anywhere else on the Island,” said Dr. Golden.

Dr. Samuels concluded:

“The only people who wouldn’t benefit [from fluoridation] are people who have already lost all their teeth.”