Vermont Town Employee Cut Fluoride in Water for Four Years

water and wastewater superintendent cited personal concerns in unsanctioned action

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Fluoridation of drinking water remains a controversial topic. Certain amounts can help prevent cavities, but too much is dangerous. A Vermont city official took matters into his own hands.

Child washing their hands in the sink
The Department of Health and Human Services overseas the national water fluoridation program that reduces tooth decay. Photo by Serg Po / Shutterstock

A city employee in Richmond, Vermont, secretly lowered the fluoride content of the town’s water supply in 2018. The employee in question, the town’s water and wastewater superintendent, was caught in September, citing his own beliefs about the sources and recommended levels of the fluoride additives. However, a spike in local children’s cavities, coupled with overlooked monthly reports from the town to the state Health Department, told a different story.

Some people are against fluoridation of water, arguing that its full health effects are unknown. In her video series Food, Science, and the Human Body, Dr. Alyssa Crittenden, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, discusses the practice’s origins and controversy.

Too Much of a Good Thing

In the dawn of the 20th century, a dentist noticed that many residents of the town of Colorado Springs had permanently stained teeth. Two dentists—Frederick McKay and G. V. Black—started studying the “Colorado Brown Stain,” as it was called, and similar incidents around the United States. McKay hypothesized that the source of the issue was the town’s water supply, and it was finally proven in 1931.

“He was also the person who discovered two intriguing facts about ‘Colorado Brown Stain,’ which we now call fluorosis,” Dr. Crittenden said. “First, the color and the accompanying mottling of the teeth are caused by an overexposure to fluoride during childhood, particularly in the first eight years of life when permanent teeth are being formed.

“Second, people with these mottled and stained teeth seemed to be particularly resistant to cavities.”

For the rest of the 1930s and into the 1940s, scientists at the National Institutes of Health published research showing that small amounts of fluoride reduced rates of cavity formation without causing fluorosis. The first town to implement fluoride treatment was Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1945. By 1960, it was a widespread practice, and by the mid-2000s, nearly 70% of Americans’ drinking water had been fluoridated.

A Word from the Opposition

“From the beginning, starting in the 1940s, many groups opposed fluoridation,” Dr. Crittenden said. “In the 1950s and ’60s, much of the opposition came from conspiracy theorists arguing that it was a plot to diminish American health by outside entities. But by the turn of the 20th century, the opposition was no longer as fringe.”

Today, opposition to fluoridation of water comes from religious groups, political organizations, environmentalists, and some medical professionals and researchers. This is because, again, high amounts of fluoride can be dangerous. According to Dr. Crittenden, in addition to fluorosis, chronic exposure to fluoride can exacerbate bone formation, kidney function, and neurodevelopment.

“Regardless of your position on water fluoridation in the U.S., the World Health Organization’s (WHO) official position is in support of fluoride,” she said. She cited their official website, which says that the public health requirement is to maximize fluoride’s beneficial effects while minimizing unwanted dental and health effects.

Food, Science, and the Human Body is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily