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A fluid situation: Jonesborough continues fluoride discussion

A 550-pound barrel of hydrofluosilcic acid, which is added to the Jonesborough water system as a fluoride additive, sits in a room at the Jonesborough water department.
A 550-pound barrel of hydrofluosilcic acid, which is added to the Jonesborough water system as a fluoride additive, sits in a room at the Jonesborough water department.



Staff Writer

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During a water tour of the Jonesborough Water Treatment Plant, the Jonesborough Mayor and Aldermen walked into a small room,  but they seemed to notice a big thing. A large black barrel had a hose in it, but it was also surrounded by holes in the concrete floor. A quick question, sparked what has now become a powder keg of controversy.

That black barrel contained hyrdrofluosilicic acid, which when added to the water, provides fluoride. The US Department of Health and Human Services recommends fluoride levels to be at .7 milligrams per liter  in public drinking water. Jonesborough Water Treatment Plant Director Jon Lucas said that once Mayor Kelly Wolfe and the aldermen started asking about the room, one thing led to another.

“Once they saw inside the room and saw the floor around it, they started asking questions about what was causing it and I explained to them about the fluoride and how it is a really corrosive and nasty chemical,” Lucas said.

Wolfe reiterated those concerns when he spoke with the Herald and Tribune, while also saying that the 24,000-plus Jonesborough water customers will have a chance to weigh-in when they receive a survey from the Jonesborough Water Department this week.

Holes can be seen next to the barrel of acid that are created in the concrete whenever the barrels are changed at least once a week.
Holes can be seen next to the barrel of acid that are created in the concrete whenever the barrels are changed at least once a week.

“Our concern is for our employees and the customers of our water system and we began to question, upon the realization of the caustic nature of this of process, why in the world would you do something this hazardous,” Wolfe said. “Then one question led to another and the next one was ‘well do we have to?’ and they said ‘no, you don’t.’”

Fluoride is a naturally occurring mineral that can help prevent dental decay, but the thought of taking out fluoride from the Jonesborough Water System has sparked support and controversy, which is good, according to Wolfe.

“We would like folks to participate and let us know their opinion,” Wolfe said. “We want to hear from our customers and we will consider that part of our public hearing that we are going to do. When you have a situation like this, where there are strong opinions on both sides, chances are, there are going to be people that aren’t happy with it and that is okay.”

Documents provided to the Herald and Tribune from the Jonesborough Water Department show that over the past eight months that an average of .27 parts per million of fluoride flow with the raw water that comes to the department from the Nolichucky River. During the months of August and September of 2015, the raw water contained an average of .35 ppm and .37 ppm.

The .7 ppm suggested by the HHS was changed a few years ago from 1.0, as dentist claimed that you can start to see signs of fluorosis, which causes staining of the teeth, at 1.0 and higher.

But, Dr. Charles Faust, Dental Hygiene Program Director at East Tennessee State University, said that if Jonesborough was to remove the fluoride from their water, “ it would be a travesty.”

Faust has taught dental hygiene students at ETSU for over 30 years and mentions that he has probably read all of the available scientific research done on fluoride during the last 60 years since it has been added to community water systems.

“The research published in reputable scientific journals is universally for fluoridation and speaks to the safety of fluoridation over the last 60 years.,” he told the Herald and Tribune via email. “The negative publicity has come from non-scientific, incidental studies and would not be accepted in professional refereed journals.  I am not sure what the ppm level is in Jonesborough, but the national standard has gone down to .7 ppm over the last few years, due to the multiple sources of fl now available.  There is however still a need to fluoridate water, primarily because it reaches the portion of the population who do not have access to dental treatment.”

But those scientific studies haven’t stopped other water systems in the state to drop practice of adding fluoride to their water. As of 2014, 88 percent of the over 400 Tennessee Water Systems fed fluoride into their water, that has dropped four percent since 1992.

If Jonesborough was to reject the fluoridation of their water, they would simply become the 17.

The most recent system to remove fluoride from their water was Oliver Springs, who serves 3,300 customers,  in September 2014. The largest to not fluoride their water is Spring Hill with 30,000 customers, another is Lebanon, who serves just under 28,000 and has not added fluoride to their water since 2007.

Columbia is another system that is about the size of Jonesborough, servicing about 27,000 customers in the city and in Maury County. They had added fluoride to their water since 1960 and removed it in September 2013.

There are also local systems that do not put the additive into their water. Systems in Hawkins County (Lakeview, Mooresburg, Persia and Surgoinsville), Sullivan County (Bluff City and Bristol-Bluff City) and Carter County (first utility of Carter County, Hampton, Siam and South Elizabethton) all do not feed fluoride into their system.

Jonesborough spends about $12,000 per year to add fluoride to their water, but Wolfe said that isn’t a motivating factor in their decision to take the additive out, as their water budget is over $1 million.

“That is insignificant in a water budget the size of ours and this is not about saving money and I don’t think anybody has ever approached it from that standpoint,” Wolfe said. “(It’s been approached by) Employ safety and legitimate health concerns seeing what we’re actually putting in the water. After seeing first hand, the barrell and the floor with holes in it, where the acid ate the floor up, there is concern there.”

The Washington County Health Department said that their concern is that Jonesborough might actually take the additive out of their water.

“Community water fluoridation has been recognized by the CDC as one of the 10 greatest public health achievements of the last century,” said Dr. Alisa Cade in a release by the Washington County Health Department. “Without community water fluoridation, children have a 20 to 40 percent higher chance of tooth decay, which can impact not just their dental and physical health, but also their social and economic health later in life. Fluoridation is a safe, effective and inexpensive method of preventing decay.”

The TDH Oral Health Services program staff estimates every dollar spent on preventing early childhood cavities saves between $300 and $3,000. For many Tennesseans, that’s not an insignificant amount of money.

Washington County Health Department Director, Jim Carson, who is also a Jonesborough resident and a customer of the Jonesborough Water System says that he is against the action of taking out the additive from the city’s water.

“This is something that could affect everyone’s oral health in the whole area,” he said. “It is a big deal. We look at it in three ways. For of all, safety to the public.  Cost effectiveness and what is the benefits to the children and adults. For 70 years, the available scientific evidence indicates that community water fluoridation is safe and effective.”

Wolfe said he respects what the WCHD has to say, but he and the board will continue to look to what they feel is best for the community.

“They are doing their job by letting their opinion be known and I applaud them for it,” Wolfe said. “On the other hand, I am getting a lot of feedback from the community that has a wide range of opinions. We plan on continuing to talk to the folks that are customers of our water system and we still plan on having our public hearing in now what will be July, after our budget is passed. We are not a scientific panel by any means, but we plan on making the very best decision on the information that we have.”

A public hearing is set for July July 18, at 6:30 p.m. inside the Jonesborough Vistor’s Center.