The water superintendent for Richmond, Vt., resigned this week after admitting that he had been lowering the fluoride levels in the town’s water below state guidelines for more than a decade.
In a five-page resignation letter dated Oct. 17, the superintendent, Kendall Chamberlin, said he had lowered the fluoride level to 0.3 parts per million. The state recommends a level of 0.7 parts per million to protect residents’ dental health.
Josh Arneson, the town manager, said in an email that he was first made aware of the fluoridation issue when the state’s health department reached out to him in June. The department informed him that the town’s water supply, which services 1,000 people, had not reached optimal fluoridation in more than three years. Mr. Arneson then followed up with the agency in September. Mr. Chamberlin — who was the water superintendent for over 30 years — later confessed in his resignation letter that the town’s water had not met the state’s recommended fluoride level since 2011, by his design.
At a Richmond Water and Sewer Commission meeting on Sept. 19, Mr. Chamberlin said that he had spoken with some Richmond residents who supported lower fluoride levels. But others were shocked to learn about his actions, which were first reported by the local news outlet Seven Days.
“That’s a long-term adjustment that he decided to make without notifying anyone, and you just don’t do that,” Kendra Ramsey, who has lived in Richmond since 2014, told The New York Times.
“Virtually all water, including ground, surface and seawater has fluoride,” according to the Vermont Department of Health’s fluoridation guide, “but the level is usually less than the optimal amount to help prevent tooth decay.”
Water fluoridation and fluoride dental products such as toothpaste and mouthwash were first introduced in the 1940s, the department’s fluoridation guide says. Despite unsubstantiated conspiracy theories that fluoridation causes health problems, the use of toothpaste and fluoridation are both credited with the decline of tooth decay in the United States, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Howard Novak, a dentist in Richmond, said he was “flummoxed” when he heard the news about the town’s water, and expressed concerns that some of his patients might experience tooth decay as a result.
“It’s indicative of what one person can do in the proper position,” Dr. Novak said. “One person who pulls the strings can have a significant impact.”
While Mr. Chamberlin maintained that he always reported accurate fluoride levels, the health department listed Richmond’s fluoridation at 0.7 parts per million in its most recent fluoridation guide, published in 2021. Mr. Chamberlin said that had been the department’s error.
Richmond’s Water and Sewer Commission voted on Oct. 3 to raise the town’s fluoridation levels to 0.7 parts per million, in accordance with recommendations from the state and from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
In his resignation letter, Mr. Chamberlin said he was resigning because he believed that decision “poses unacceptable risks to ‘public health.’” Both in his letter and in meetings, Mr. Chamberlin expressed uneasiness about following the state guidelines.
“My biggest concern is that right now, the only fluoride you can get is from China and you have no control over the quality control that happens there,” Mr. Chamberlin said at the Sept. 19 meeting.
Tracy Boehmer, a fluoridation engineer at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an email that while sodium fluoride and sodium fluorosilicate are supplied from overseas manufacturers in China and elsewhere in East Asia, all additives used to treat water are subject to testing.
Forty-eight states, including Vermont, have laws or regulations that only allow the use of certified fluoride products that have been tested, Ms. Boehmer said.
Dr. Novak said he thought that Mr. Chamberlin was a nice guy who was trying to do good in the town, but that he was misguided.
“It goes to show the influence that things on the internet can have on the thought processes of people,” he said.
At the Water and Sewer Commission meeting on Oct. 3, Mr. Chamberlin apologized and appeared to recognize that he might have acted on bad information.
“Words cannot express how sorry I am for causing this controversy,” Mr. Chamberlin said. “Believe me when I say, I have always only had good intentions based on a misunderstanding.”