By Susan K. Livio
Water companies in New Jersey would be required to add fluoride to the water supply under a bill approved Monday by an Assembly panel at the urging of dentists and public health professionals — despite objections from environmentalists and utility officials.
The bill’s passage by the Assembly Health Committee was never in doubt since it prime sponsor was Assemblyman Herb Conaway (D-Camden), the panel chairman and a doctor himself, is a prime sponsor. The vote was 8-0 with two absentions, and the measure now moves to the full Assembly.
But since 2005, the “New Jersey Public Supply Fluoridation Act” has stalled and died before being voted on by full Legislature. Opponents have succeeded in raising concerns about costs to consumers and potential health threats from exposure to fluoride, whose amounts they say are difficult to regulated.
New Jersey is one of the nation’s least fluoridated states, with 1.1 million of its 8.7 million residents living in communities that add the naturally occurring element to the public supply. New Jersey ranks 49th, ahead of only Hawaii, in terms of the number of residents who have access to fluoridated water, dentists told the committee.
Barbara Ann Rich of Cherry Hill, president of the New Jersey Dental Association, said for every dollar spent fluoridating the water, $38 in dental and medical bills are saved.
“This is the least expensive, most effective way of reduce dental disease in the country,” Rich said. “Dental decay and dental disease are the most prevalent childhood disease in the country.” Numerous supporters cited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for calling fluoridation “one of 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century.”
Jeff Tittel, head of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, said he could support the bill if water companies guaranteedthey would not use cheaper “industrial grade” fluoride that could have dangerous levels of metals.
“Fluoride in our water can be healthy, but not if it also contains toxic chemicals,” Tittel said. “The legislature’s job should be removing toxins not adding them.” Ron Farr of the North Jersey District Water Supply Commission said residents “can ill afford more expense in this economy.”
“All utility expenses are passed onto consumers,’’ Farr said. “Start-up capital expenses would be $1 billion to $2 billion on the drinking water side and $3 billion to $5 billion on the wastewater treatment side.”
But Conaway said he was “incredulous” over the cost estimates.
He said he had toured Atlantic City’s water treatment plant and no new construction was required when it began fluoridating the water. “It’s hard to imagine how these costs are attached,” he said.