By LISA WHALEY
For a concerned group of regional health professionals, Jonesborough’s fluoride issues did not end with the Board of Mayor and Aldermen’s Feb. 13 vote to discontinue adding the substance to their local drinking water.
In fact, for these doctors, dentists and public health administrators, it has actually been just the beginning.
“The health department was contacted by so many individuals who were interested in the issue,” explained Dr. David Kirschke, regional medical director for the Northeast Tennessee Regional Health Department. “We didn’t look to form a group but it just sort of happened.”
Drawn together by a mutual concern over the possible impact in the region from the BMA decision, the list soon grew to include other such local health figures as Dr. Joseph Florence, Jonesborough resident and director of rural programs at the Quillen College of Medicine, Dr. Paul Stanton, retired surgeon, current county commissioner and former president of East Tennessee State University and Dr. David Wood, chair of pediatrics for Quillen, as well as 20 or so more professionals from medical, dental and public health fields.
They meet monthly on the campus of East Tennessee State University.
“The long and short of it is children benefit from fluoride,” Dr. Stanton explained. “It’s been shown for decades that where there is fluoride in the water consumed, there are much, much less cavities.”
“Most all of the people who are attending (these meetings) are on the same page as far as a concern over the decision the was made. And its not going to let up. In fact, it’s going to grow.”
The Jonesborough board’s February decision, passed by a 3 to 1 vote with longtime alderman and vice mayor Terry Countermine as the lone dissenting voice on the board, was sparked by concerns about the possible negative impact the chemical could have on people’s health. “The board worked very hard to provide a balanced response,” Browning said. At the crux of the issue was an issue of risk verses responsibility, and nobody could provide documentation that fluoride doesn’t hurt the body with longtime use, he said.
Implementation was originally set for July, and according to Town Administrator Bob Browning, that plan is still on track.
That means the day when Jonesborough’s water will become fluoride-additive free is rapidly approaching. And this recently formed, pro-fluoride group is currently working hard to discover a way to reverse the board’s decision.
There are, they agree, several ways to do this.
According to Dr. Kirschke, the key is really about providing accurate information. If the facts had been complete and the town had made such a decision, he said, he would have respected that right.
“But I felt like the citizens of Jonesborough made the decision based on false information,” he said. “I feel a responsibility and I would just like the decision to be based on solid, good evidence.”
Part of that evidence, proponents believe, can be found in February’s decision by the Environmental Protection Agency — released after the BMA vote — that examines in detail a petition submitted in Nov. of 2016 to ban fluoride from water.
The EPA’s final decision was in favor of leaving fluoride levels at current rates.
“I encourage you to read the EPA report,” Alderman Countermine said. “It contradicts by good scientific research what was said in the petition.”
Another key bit of evidence that didn’t get full disclosure, according to these physicians, was the issue of ingestion of fluoride and its importance.
For example, Dr. Kirschke said, “When you ingest fluoride, not only does it topically help the teeth, but it gets into your salivary glands and bathes the teeth.”
He added that seniors also benefit from this constant bath. “Actually older adults are at high risk for cavities as gums recede,” he said.
And there is so much more, they say.
Asked why such information didn’t make itself known clearly at the meeting and public hearing held before the vote, and the reply is often that — as is the case with Dr. Bill Kennedy, a retired physician and well-known Jonesborough figure — it was hard to believe the board would make such a decision.
“I have huge respect for this Board of Mayor and Aldermen,” said Dr. Kennedy, who currently heads the Jonesborough Historic Zoning Commission. “They are in my mind certainly among the best boards in my 40 years in the town of Jonesborough.”
“I thought, ‘They’ll straighten this issue out in no time flat.’ How wrong I was.”
In all his years of public service for the town, Dr. Kennedy said, he always made it a policy to never make comments on town decisions unrelated to his role in historic preservation.
But this case, he said, things were different.
“To me, it’s going against a major victory in public health in the 20th century,” Dr. Kennedy said. “Some of them consider (fluoride) to be therapeutic from the health point of view. But in my view it is more closely related to having clean water to prevent disease. It’s akin to requiring electrical wiring up to code for safety. It’s akin to building codes for safety. It’s at that kind of level and it’s that obvious.”
Dr. Kennedy espouses a plan of action that would involve one-on-one time with board members to ensure each receives a full understanding of the facts.
“I’m hoping that they will look at the highlights of the information — I don’t expect them to wade through all the research,” he said. “I’m hoping they will be swayed by the overwhelming conclusion and assessment of the science by the local and health community. They need to be aware of the science.”
If education doesn’t work, then other members of the group are looking into the political realm.
Dr. Johnny Johnson, with the American Fluoridation Society who faced a similar battle in Florida years ago, found that when education failed to work, a concentrated campaign to replace board members who were opposed to fluoride was successful.
“We needed up with an election which was really a referendum election,” he said. Two candidates who were more favorably inclined toward fluoride ended up replaced the two long-term board members who had voted for its removal.
Dr. Allen Burleson, a well-known Jonesborough dentist who has been at the forefront of this battle from the very beginning, agrees.
“This is about the children,” he said. “If you have children or grandchildren, this affects them.
“I love Jonesborough. I love the people of Jonesborough. But this one issue has already cast a negative aspect. If we have to get in the political arena, we will. Whatever we have to do for our children…”
Dr. Patrick Stern, a retired pediatrician who has grandchildren in the Grandview school, believes a legal course of action could even be in the cards.
“Not one time in my career in a paper, in a presentation in anything, has fluoride ever come up as toxic,” he said. But damage specifically to children in the area could be immense. And, like Dr. Burleson, he is intent on doing whatever is needed.
That’s because the cost, these health professionals maintain, is much too high to ignore.
Dr. Florence said he has witnessed the results first hand when he was living and working in rural Kentucky.
“There I saw a lot of problems with fluoride because we had lot of well water,” he said. “Part of my responsibility as a primary care doctor was to hand out fluoride to kids.
“Not everyone took it. And it was a real problem. Most of my work is done out in the rural community and I continued to see a lot of dental problem. It was the #1 issue, no question about it.
“Yeah, there are lots of ways to get fluoride, but they don’t. To me it’s a no brainer.”
As for the hazards fluoride may pose, Dr. Kennedy, Dr. Stanton and Dr. Stern, as well as others, argue that decades of research has yet to support any realistic risk, and the majority of the medical community continues to support the proper use of fluoride.
“Some people talk about danger of fluoride,” Dr. Stanton said, “but the controlled levels they have it at is not going to do anything negative.”
“I think what we’re doing in Jonesborough is not the right thing.”