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Editorial: Hartford Brushes Off Fluoridation Science

Those curious to witness what life is like among those who are unmoved by contemporary scientific thinking need not travel to states where many regard evolution as heresy, or to the Republican-controlled U.S. House, where global warming is regarded with skepticism. A visit to Hartford will do.

There, the earnest beseeching of public health advocates has fallen on deaf ears: The Selectboard recently decided against taking up the matter of fluoridating the public water supply.

The initiative was pushed by the Upper Valley Oral Health Coalition via a campaign called “Happy Hartford Teeth.” The coalition’s case: For a relatively paltry sum, the town could start fluoridating its municipal water supply, which serves 90 percent of the town’s residents, and thereby deliver preventative dental care to a sizable portion of Hartford.

This is not a matter for debate in much of the country. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about three-quarters of all Americans drink water that has been treated with fluoride, and therefore are at greatly reduced risk for tooth decay — a particularly important preventative measure for children. For some reason, and the number of private wells is a factor, New England has always lagged behind the rest of the country in embracing fluoridation: Only about 57 percent of Vermont residents and 43 percent of New Hampshire residents were connected to fluoridated systems in 2010. In the Upper Valley, only six municipalities — Hanover, Norwich and Lebanon among them — fluoridate their water.

It will surprise few people to discover that there is a vocal minority of people who have not embraced the use of fluoride as a beneficial public health measure. It doesn’t come as a shock because there are precious few findings in contemporary life that achieve unanimous acceptance. Whether it be the advisability of childhood vaccinations, the identity of the people responsible for destroying the World Trade Center or the circumstances of Barack Obama’s birth, there is almost always an impassioned bloc of dissenters who can summon studies and people with impressive credentials to challenge that which most everybody else regards as established fact.

Here’s what is surprising: Given the choice between siding with the minority of skeptics or the medical establishment, which regards the fluoridation of public drinking water as one of the most significant public health achievements of the 20th century, the Hartford Selectboard chose the noisy few. On paper, the board insists that it sided with neither by declining a request from the Upper Valley Oral Health Coalition to set aside time during a board meeting to hear the case for fluoridation. But refusing to consider making the change is no different from considering it and then rejecting it.

Board members expressed two reservations. For starters, they were reluctant to compel those Hartford residents opposed to fluoridation to drink treated water. The problem with that objection is that it ignores one of the most significant benefits of treating a public drinking supply: Fluoridation ensures that a basic level of preventative oral care is delivered to a wide range of people, including minors under the care of adults who may not be sufficiently attentive to their children’s dental practices. Considering the overwhelming advantage of preventing tooth decay in this manner — attested to by many local dentists who have seen the unfortunate results of forgoing fluoridation — it’s reasonable to ask conscientious objectors to alleviate their concerns by assuming the inconvenience and expense of buying bottled water.

But it seems that the board declined to hear out the public health advocates mostly because it didn’t wish to get entangled in something so “controversial,” to borrow the term used by Co-chairman Alex DeFelice. The board didn’t want to consume precious time that might otherwise be used to take on other pressing matters — more pressing than the health of town residents, that is.

“I think we would have our hands full if we delve into this without giving some serious thought about what we are getting into,” warned Co-chairman Ken Parker.

So, maybe there’s a difference between Hartford and, say, some small town in Kansas that insists on teaching biology without mentioning evolution. In Hartford, it’s not that the elected officials necessarily reject modern science (although at least one does in regard to fluoridation), but rather they don’t wish to go to the trouble of implementing policy based on scientific findings if it might bring them some grief from a dissenting minority.

We’re not sure the distinction offers much solace.