Members of the Orono and Veazie town councils listen as representatives from the Maine Oral Health Coalition Judy Feinstein and Patrick Rowe, a dentist, give information about adding fluoride into the water supply that is shared between the two communities, Oct. 25, 2021. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

Orono and Veazie are revisiting a pre-pandemic debate over adding fluoride to the water supply that serves the two towns, which has had the mineral since the early 1960s.

The Orono and Veazie town councils met Monday night in a joint session to hear from opponents and proponents of adding fluoride to the public water system. Both councils would have to agree to put a question on the ballot allowing voters to decide whether the decades-old practice should continue, but Orono councilors who spoke Monday night appeared reluctant to take that step.

The debate stems from the request of an Orono resident in recent years who asked the Orono-Veazie Water District to stop adding fluoride after he accidentally swallowed it when his niece, a dental student, practiced on him. Across the country, dozens of cities have voted in recent years to stop adding fluoride to their water supplies.

The Orono-Veazie Water District is among the dozens of public water systems in Maine that add CDC-recommended levels of the mineral to their water for its dental benefits of making teeth less vulnerable to decay.

The mineral was first introduced in public water systems in 1945, and the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention has called its addition to water one of the greatest public health achievements of the 20th century — a safe and effective way of reducing tooth decay in children and adults.

Fluoride is naturally found in water, soil, and some foods and beverages, according to the CDC, and people can be exposed to it daily, most commonly through toothpaste and mouthwashes. However, it can pose risks when people ingest it in large amounts — at levels above its concentration in public water supplies.

Orono and Veazie councilors on Monday night heard from Judy Feinstein of the Maine Oral Health Coalition and Orono dentist Patrick Rowe, who argued to keep fluoride in the water, and fluoridation opponent Paul Connett, director of the Fluoride Action Network. Connett participated in the meeting remotely.

Typically, the water district’s trustees make decisions about managing the water supply. But deciding whether to put a measure on the ballot falls to the town councils, Orono Town Manager Sophie Wilson said. Both councils would have to agree before the measure goes on a local ballot.

The measure had been approved to go onto ballots at least three times but was consistently rescheduled or removed, Wilson said. The COVID-19 pandemic then further delayed action on the topic.

Orono councilors Geoffrey Wingard and Meghan Gardner said they felt like the measure should not be placed on a ballot for voters.

“I’m not inclined to do that for a number of reasons,” Gardner said. “The tactics used by some of these individuals [against fluoride] seem to me to rest on fear-mongering.”

Wingard said he didn’t feel comfortable putting the measure before voters, with two sides presenting information that refuted the other and both sides standing firm in their beliefs.

Councilors made no decisions Monday because the meeting was meant to be a workshop. In Orono, Council Chair Tom Perry said the council would likely decide on next steps at an upcoming meeting.

If one community does not agree to send the measure to voters and it doesn’t move forward, residents would have to generate a petition to add it to the ballot during the next general election, which is November 2022.

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Sawyer Loftus

Sawyer Loftus is a reporter covering Old Town, Orono and the surrounding areas. A recent graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he's worked for Vermont Public Radio, The...