Marysville water plant supervisor advocates for end to use of fluoride

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Bari Wrubel, supervisor of the water and wastewater plants, is pictured at Marysville’s filtration plant several years ago. (Photo: MARK R. RUMMEL/TIMES HERALD)

The supervisor of Marysville’s water plants is advocating that the city abandon the use of fluoride, but officials haven’t formally responded after issues were raised this week.

During a presentation Monday, Bari Wrubel, who oversees the water filtration and wastewater treatment plants, said city staff has been working in limbo after a leak in fluoride storage tanks last April, raising questions over the efficiency of the use of the chemical versus the challenges it’s meant to plant employees, infrastructure and city financing.

“I haven’t found anybody that’s two thumbs up on keeping fluoride,” he told City Council members. “It’s kind of the elephant in the room that I think people are afraid to breach the gates with and start talking about and try to recommend to their councils to do it. Because they know it draws a lot of attention.

“You can get a lot of bad publicity. ‘You don’t know what you’re doing. You’re a quack,’ whatever. But I’m willing to take that kind of heat because I believe it’s the right thing to do.”

Dr. Annette Mercatante, St. Clair County’s medical health officer, countered Wrubel’s presentation, advocating Marysville stick with its decades-long use of fluoride in the water and citing long-term benefits that start with a finite amount of consumption of the substance for children as their teeth grow.

She said water fluoridation was a recommendation widely held by “public and oral health experts,” and that the city should be “rightly proud” of its use. She said officials shouldn’t be “willing to eliminate something so overwhelmingly positive for our community.”

Council members asked questions but made no official decision Monday.

By Tuesday, Marysville City Manager Randy Fernandez said he hadn’t heard from council about setting an agenda to vote on issues posed by Wrubel.

Both officials had stressed Monday’s presentations — held during a special council meeting — were about transparency.

“There’s no vote taken. I’m not sure there will be a future vote taken. It was just an informational meeting,” Fernandez said. “If I get further direction from council one way or the other, I’ll put it on the agenda. But right now, I can’t say whether it’s going to proceed forward or not. If there aren’t four council people that want to get rid of fluoride, it will never be added to the agenda. Why would I do that?”

Costs of fluoride: Staff exposure, infrastructure  and spending

Marysville council officials first voted to add fluoride to the city’s water supply in 1951 and can only be removed by another council vote, which Wrubel said was the limited requirements the state has regarding use of the chemical.

Officials said the enabled range for fluoride was 0.6 to 1.2 milligrams per liter with Marysville abiding by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation of 0.7.

But Marysville’s infrastructure to regulate use of fluoride has been an issue over the past several years.

Cleanup of a fluoride leak from a tank in the city’s water filtration plant cost nearly $27,000 in 2015.

Wrubel said there was a leak issue for a third time in April.

“The fluoride attacks the gel coat on the inside of the fiberglass. It starts to breakdown the fibers and then the fluoride will weep through the fiberglass itself,” he said. “(It will) make you think you have a gasket leak. You try to address it, it doesn’t go away.”

Since then, he said plant staff has been exchanging fluoride supplies in smaller-volume containers, while they wait for council action.

That means more frequently exposing themselves to fluoride — something he emphasized was a registered hazardous chemical with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

It also means a higher cost for the city. What is usually about $12,000 a year in spending, Wrubel said will likely near $20,000 this year.

Once council does or doesn’t decide, Wrubel said they can move forward with more final infrastructure repairs. Features in the plant’s secondary containment areas, including the location of an emergency shower, pumps, power disconnects and receptacles, he said are not adequate and don’t meet safety requirements.

Wrubel spelled out two options. The first was ceasing the application of fluoride, he said, while the other was higher cost with $30,000 for coating in tanks and $12,000 to relocate some infrastructure, among other yet-to-be priced requirements.

Justin Westmiller, director of emergency management for the county and also a Marysville resident, spoke briefly Monday.

“It’s clearly a danger to the employees and it has to be dealt with accordingly,” he said. “But we’ve heard a lot of positives with the public health side. I think both arguments are really good. One of the things that got me was this was partially coming down to money.”

Westmiller cautioned officials from making the fluoride decision a financial one.

Chris Berdan, a city resident and employee at the water plant, spoke against use of fluoride. He said he deals with it every day, and that “it’s a terrible gas and you can’t breathe.”

Wrubel said the impacts of fluoride at the plant are visible  — that the “glass is hazy” and looks “milky white” in the back rooms where chemicals are stored.

Berdan added he didn’t think it was fair to pay local taxes and, unable to put in a well at home under city rules, be forced to have access to city water with the chemical.

“If the person wants to get the fluoride, let them get it,” he said. “Don’t force it on everybody.”

Fluoride recommended by local health, dental professionals

Some local dental professionals also supported water fluoridation Monday night.

Dr. Jason Souyias, a periodontist in Port Huron, said the estimation of the average a patient saves by having fluoride in the water is about $38 per year in dentistry.

“It is a lifetime benefit,” he said. “If you consumed Marysville public water as a child, that benefit is still with you today. And so, the prevention of decay, in 75 years, we went from people (who) expected to lose their teeth by the time they were in their 20s or 30s to people that never expect to lose their teeth their entire life because of decay.”

Dr. Rachel Knorr, a dentist at My Community Dental Center, agreed about concerns in potentially removing fluoride use, adding she thought Marysville would see an increase in cavities, particularly among children.

“I’m also a mother. I have a 16-month-old daughter, and the pediatrician recommended using fluoridated water,” she said. “Whether it was tap water or bottled, like the pediatric water that has fluoride in it. No concerns of fluorosis, and I’m brushing my daughter’s teeth with fluoridated toothpaste.”

Knorr’s center, she said, was also a Medicaid clinic, where she sees a lot of patients who are of a lower socioeconomic status.

Both she and Mercatante touched on the benefits of fluoride in areas where people couldn’t afford dental care.

Mercatante recalled the 2017 health assessment, which surveyed residents in 2016, adding, “Oral health access was one of the top four concerns of our community stakeholders. … Not only that, we measured over 36 percent of adults were not receiving preventive dental care in the previous year. We all know we are losing health insurance.”

Mercatante also said there was no pediatric dentist in the local community and that “this not the time to withdraw a proven preventive health policy like fluoride.”

Contact Jackie Smith at (810) 989-6270 or Follow her on Twitter @Jackie20Smith.

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