The acting commissioner of Maine's Department of Health and Human Services urged the state's water districts Monday to immediately reduce the amount of fluoride in drinking water, following federal guidelines announced last week.
Maine calls for 1 to 2 parts per million of fluoride -- which has been shown to prevent tooth decay -- to be added to municipal water supplies.
New federal guidelines say a level of 0.7 parts per million offers sufficient dental protection and lowers the risk of splotchy or pitted teeth in adolescents and brittle bones or fractures in the elderly.
"We actually were looking at this even before the feds made the pronouncement," said Dr. Stephen Sears, the state's epidemiologist, who took over last week as acting director of the DHHS. "We knew that the research was going on, so it didn't come as a surprise."
Sears said the state will change its rules to reflect the lower recommended level. The process is likely to take about three months. In the meantime, he encouraged water districts -- which supply about 80 percent of Maine's population -- to go ahead and cut back on fluoride.
"They can drop to the lower level," he said. "Since we are going to be moving our rules to the 0.7 level, we think it is reasonable for those water districts that want to (reduce immediately) to consider doing that while we're getting our rules process in place."
Sears said Maine residents who draw drinking water from wells should test the water for levels of naturally occurring fluoride, which may be higher than 0.7 parts per million.
The Portland Water District, which serves Cape Elizabeth, Cumberland, Falmouth, Gorham, Portland, Raymond, Scarborough, South Portland, Standish, Westbrook and Windham, spent $120,000 on fluoride last year. The new guidelines are likely to cut that cost nearly in half.
"We probably would not do it all at once, but in a slow, controlled manner so that it doesn't adversely affect any of the other processes that are going on," said the district's spokeswoman, Michelle Clements. "That's what we've done when we've reduced chemicals in the past."
Clements said the district began fluoridating its water in 1997, after voters approved it in a referendum that followed four failed attempts from 1963 to 1976. In recent years, voters in Mount Desert and Jackman decided to discontinue fluoridation.
Any water district that adds fluoride must follow state regulations.
Oliver Outerbridge, who ran unsuccessfully in 2009 for a seat on the Portland Water District board, welcomed the reduction of what he described as a toxic substance.
"It's a step in the right direction," said Outerbridge, who owns Bonobo, a popular pizza joint in Portland's West End. "On the other side of things, there's no reason to be adding it at all. Ingestion of fluoride has never been recommended by any well-known scientist that I can think of. It should be used topically."
Outerbridge said the issue is one of personal choice, perhaps in consultation with a physician. "If somebody has a concern about fluoride they should just get bottled water."
Sears, speaking for the state, said he sees no reason to eliminate fluoridation.
"I know there will be people who will say that, but we are still getting significant dental benefit across populations," he said. "We just want to make sure that we are getting the maximum benefit and doing that at the least possible (fluoride) level."
Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: email@example.com
Copyright (c) 2011, Portland Press Herald, Maine
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