It will be at least a year before there is formal discussion of adding fluoride to the Meadville Area Water Authority’s system, an effort that has been advanced as key to improving area residents’ poor dental health.
Meanwhile, a group of local people who are concerned that adding fluoride may not be a good move are arranging to have a prominent anti-fluoride activist become a part the discussion.
That discussion is officially on hold for now because the authority is in the midst of a significant infrastructure improvement project and does not believe that it and its staff have the time and resources to manage the infrastructure project while simultaneously organizing the community discussions that would precede a decision on fluoride, authority Chairman Tim Groves said. The estimated $9.2 million project to replace the authority’s 100-year-old clearwell and 140-year-old Highland Reservoir should be nearing completion by mid-summer 2014, and that is the earliest the authority will take up fluoride, Groves said.
The request to add fluoride came May 20 when representatives of the Community Initiative for Improved Dental Health presented to the authority the results of its year-long study of the issue. The group, which includes representation from the local dental community, pediatric physicians, Meadville Medical Center, Allegheny College and Crawford Central School District, formed in response to data that shows a significant dental health issue in the community.
Community Initiative member Dr. Denise Johnson, who is also Meadville Medical Center’s chief medical officer, said in reaction to the authority’s timeline: “I certainly understand that there are a lot of priorities for the water authority, but we still believe that fluoride should be a very high priority, both because of its importance to the dental health of our community and as a way to address the needs of vulnerable members of our society who don’t have access to fluoride.”
Among the data that prompted Johnson and others to form the Community Initiative is a state study that shows extremely high rates of cavities in children and adults in northwest Pennsylvania compared to the state’s and national rates. In addition, studies of Meadville Medical Center data show that untreated dental problems regularly rank first or second among reasons for emergency room visits. And a local health assessment study showed lack of access to dental care providers who accept welfare or offer low-cost service to the uninsured.
Not only can poor dental health lead to missed time at work and school, delayed social and speech development in children, poor nutrition and provide a foothold for host of diseases, but treating advanced dental health problems in an emergency room setting is cost-inefficient and sometimes must be provided for free, which increases costs.
As part of its response to this issue, the Medical Center established The Meadville Dental Center on Liberty Street last year. It accepts welfare payments, has a sliding fee scale based on patients’ ability to pay and is centrally located for easy access.
Fluoridating the water is another response to the issue and is intended to prevent dental health problems rather than addressing them after they’ve begun.
The Community Initiative’s review of scientific studies found fluoridation to be a safe, widespread and generally accepted measure to ensure dental health for children through adults. While there are a variety of ways to provide fluoride treatment, the Community Initiative’s assessment is that adding it to the public water system is the most consistent and cost-effective way to provide the greatest benefit.
Fluoridation is not without its skeptics, critics and opponents, however, and among them locally is Meadville chiropractor Chris Knapp. He and others with concerns have arranged to bring a leading fluoride opponent to speak when the authority moves forward. Paul Connett, a retired professor of environmental chemistry and toxicology, serves as executive director of the Fluoride Action Network, a group that questions many studies that show fluoride to be safe and that expresses concern about the potential of fluoride causing other health issues.
Knapp and others have provided some information to the authority about their concerns and they look forward to the public meetings and education efforts.
“The discussion will help educate all of us,” Knapp said.
Tribune reporter Mary Spicer and editor Pat Bywater collaborated on this report. They can be reached at 724-6370.