The Hartland Township Board of Trustees voted 5-2 Tuesday to immediately stop adding fluoride to its drinking water, joining an international movement that questions the additive's dental benefits and warns of possible health dangers that range from making bones brittle to an increased cancer risk.
Fluoridation supporters countered the evidence was junk science or taken out of context while noting mainstream medical groups, ranging from the Michigan Department of Community Health and the American Cancer Society, support the practice. Some also say the move will give the township a reputation as a place swayed by conspiracy theories.
The results of Tuesday's spirited debate — which one point became even a little theatrical — adds Hartland Township to a rare list where only two communities in the state (Mount Clemens and St. Ignace) in recent years, according to officials.
The change affects the township's tiny system that serves nearly 500 customers. The group consists of mostly homeowners, multiple businesses and three schools in the Hartland School District — the , and .
"We're making the decision for other people," said Trustee Glenn Harper while arguing to end fluoridation before the vote. "Our biggest complaint about Obamacare is that bureaucrats and politicians are going to be making medical decisions for us. Here's a perfect example of where we're doing that. We don't need to do that."
At that moment, Harper, who has spearheaded the effort to remove the substance, said anyone, including the poor, can afford to get fluoride on their own, first holding up a bottle of $2.29 two-month supply of mouthwash from he bought last week, then a $1 bottle purchased from the before the meeting. He said it doesn't make sense for the township to pay thousands of dollars a year to add it to the water.
"If somebody really, really wanted this stuff, here take it," he said placing the bottles in front of him with a thump.
But Trustee Joe Colaianne, who voted no, said the entire issue appears to be political grandstanding less than a year away from elections. The entire board is represented by Republicans.
"You're using props now and I don't appreciate it," he said. "You have a real hard time going up against the American Medical Association, American Dental Association."
Harper denied his motivation was political, adding information from the Centers for Disease and Control shows that drinking fluoridated water doesn't work and that it must be applied topically.
Afterward, Harper said the board made the right decision.
"(Board members) struggled for a long time," said Harper, who first learned about the issue from a chiropractor who also has a Ph.D. in nutrition during a conference. "Everybody did their own research. They didn't rely what I provided them. We relied upon reliable sources, like the CDC, like Harvard … all credible people."
International battle fought out in Hartland
The decision took several , a public hearing and while interest groups on both sides inundated board members with information — a process that Trustee Joe Petrucci, who also voted no, said he appreciated while comparing it to a "root canal." Despite it all, it was local information that swayed him most.
"I talked to a minimum of eight dentists and doctors," said Petrucci, who is the only board member on the system. "All of them suggested keeping fluoride in the system. Not one of them said take it out. I also contacted my neighbors. … They basically told me to leave it alone."
Both Petrucci and Colaianne favored spending money to improve the current system, especially because officials say the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to lower the current acceptable standards for fluoride from 4 parts per million to a range of 1.2 parts per million to 0.7 parts per million (0.7 parts per million is considered by the Department of Health and Human Services the optimal amount to promote dental health).
Currently, the township range has been as high as 2 parts per million.
To upgrade the system, it would have cost about $15,000 in equipment upfront and about $5,300 annually, which would have cost customers an additional $25 a year, according to Township Manager James Wickman.
But other board members questioned whether the the new equipment — which could regulate levels between 0.8 parts per million and 0.6 parts per million — was needed because the groundwater already averages about 0.4 parts per million naturally. They also noted it's not a government mandate and 40 percent of systems across the country exist without fluoride.
Clerk Larry Hopkins, who voted yes to end adding fluoride, said he was raised in the city of Detroit, which has fluoridated water, but had a bunch of cavities while his children never had fluoridated water at home but have had none.
"I don't see the benefit on a cavity standpoint from going to 0.4 to 0.6 and the money that's involved in doing that," said Hopkins, who was joined by Harper, Supervisor Bill Fountain, Treasurer Kathie Horning and Trustee Matt Germane in voting yes.
A trio of residents tried to sway the board before the vote during public comment.
Hartland resident Jordan Genso said while the anti-fluoridation movement is savvy, it's going to individual communities to make its case politically because it's lost scientifically. He urged the board not to buy into the hype.
"If Hartland passes this … it would reflect really poorly in our community that we allow such conspiracy theories to take hold," he said.
"They never actually address the evidence in favor of fluoride. There's a lot of evidence in favor of fluoride. You can't just ignore that unless you feel it's a conspiracy."
But others spoke out against fluoridation. Natalie Pryde, a 43-year-old environmental scientist from Deerfield Township, said she's concerned because she has two children in Hartland schools that have the water.
Pryde, who has a doctorate in naturopathy, said her reading of research shows dangers were known as early as the 1930s. She said Hartland Township wouldn't be alone in making the change, noting this year alone cities in the U.S. and internationally with the combined populations of 2.5 million people "have been freed from fluoridation."
"Fluoridation, it's unethical," she said. "It's forced medication through our water supply and we don't have a choice. … It's important that when my children and other children step up to that drinking fountain, it's safe."