Southmont

J.R. Courter (center), who works for Greater Johnstown Water Authority, managed by Resource Development and Management Inc., supervises work at Mabel and Helen streets in Southmont on Monday, July 10, 2017, after a waterline was hit during work on the borough's sewage lines.

The members of the Greater Johnstown Water Authority’s board of directors voted unanimously Thursday afternoon to stop adding fluoride to the water that the authority supplies to customers.

Ed Cernic Sr., the chairman of the board, said after Thursday’s meeting that he was “very satisfied” with the outcome of the vote and that the board voted to end fluoridation largely because most of the public feedback it received on the practice was negative.

“We listened to the voice of the people,” Cernic said. “That’s how our board acts.”

According to an information sheet distributed to board members before Thursday’s vote, 84 GJWA customers responded last month to the authority’s request for public feedback on fluoridation.

Of those, 60 customers – just over 70 percent – wanted the authority to stop adding fluoride to the water, while the other 24 preferred the status quo.

Michael Kerr, the authority’s resident manager, said when the idea of ending fluoridation was first aired in May that the authority would save money by eliminating fluoride.

Continuing to add fluoride, a mineral used to fight tooth decay, to the water supply would have cost the authority hundreds of thousands of dollars over the next decade, Kerr estimated in May – about $125,000 for updates to the chemical feed system and $400,000 or more for the fluoride itself.

Cernic said Thursday, however, that he doesn’t think cost reduction was “the motivating factor” behind the board’s vote. Instead, he pointed to two other factors – the fact that most water isn’t used for tooth-cleaning purposes, meaning the fluoride in that water goes to waste, and the availability of fluoride in products like toothpaste.

“The way people use fluoride now, in toothpaste and stuff, they get the same benefit out of toothpaste,” he said. “Most of the water going out with fluoride in it goes to car washes, doing something like that. It’s not necessarily input into your mouth.”

At a public meeting on May 30, two local dentists urged the authority to keep adding fluoride to the water.

Calling fluoridation a “safe” and “effective” way to fight tooth decay, Dr. Robert Callahan, the mayor of Westmont, said ending the practice would put “our health care back into the last century.”

Dr. Scott Little, meanwhile, told board members that research shows that “water that has a fluoride level that’s regulated never did anything but benefit” and warned that ending fluoridation could cause serious public health problems.

“I know we live in an area where the cost of things has become so difficult, but I’m hoping that the board will look at these things and realize, too, people can die of toothaches,” Little said. “People can die. I have seen people die.”

Callahan and Little were two of 11 people who spoke in favor of fluoridation at May’s public meeting; 13 people spoke against the practice at the same meeting. In the weeks after the meeting, though, the authority received 30 phone calls and 17 letters calling on it to remove fluoride from the water – compared to just seven phone calls and six letters urging it to continue fluoridation.

Cernic said many of the anti-fluoridation partisans told the authority that, if they want to use fluoride, they can get it on their own.

Dr. Joseph Taranto, a Johnstown chiropractor and the chairman of the Johnstown Housing authority, spoke against fluoridation at May’s meeting, asking whether it is “right for our society to medicate its populace without informed consent?”

Taranto answered his own question: “I don’t believe so. If I want it, I’ll go to the store and I’ll buy it. I think it’s a great thing, but I don’t think the government should force it on me.”

No members of the public spoke at Thursday’s meeting of the authority.

Cernic said he expects the process of ending fluoridation to be completed by the end of the year.

Kerr told the board after their vote that the authority must now get the necessary permits to end fluoridation from the state – a process that could take as many as 120 business days. After those permits are granted, Kerr added, there would be a “ramping down” of fluoride levels in authority-supplied water.

“We have to use up the fluoride that’s in the tanks now, use it up, and then ... we’ll cease putting fluoride in it,” Cernic said.

As required by the state Department of Environmental Protection, Thursday’s vote was taken after the authority notified the public that it was considering ending fluoridation and held a hearing to receive public feedback on the issue.

The GJWA serves the following municipalities in Cambria County: the City of Johnstown, Brownstown Borough, Dale Borough, Ferndale Borough, Lorain Borough, Westmont Borough, East Conemaugh Borough, Franklin Borough, Southmont Borough, Conemaugh Township, Middle Taylor Township, Stonycreek Township, Lower Yoder Township, Upper Yoder Township and West Taylor Township.

It also serves Conemaugh Township, Somerset County.

Mark Pesto is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkPesto.