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As fluoride debate begins, business as usual at treatment plant

Jessica Fuller • May 16, 2016 at 4:55 PM

It’s been about a month since the Jonesborough Board of Mayor and Aldermen began the conversation about whether to retain fluoridated water for the town.

After discussion about an earlier meeting, the board scheduled a public hearing in July to accommodate the volume of feedback from the community.

But until the board decides, it’s business as usual at the water treatment plant, where heavily concentrated fluoride is a part of every employee’s day.

While the issue is drawing increasing scrutiny, only a small part of the plant is actually dedicated to adding fluoride to the town’s water supply: It’s little bigger than a closet, with a yellow sign alerting employees to protect their hands and eyes while handling the chemical. 

Below the barrels, Water Treatment Plant Director Jonathon Lucas points out damage to the floor, where he says fluoride has eaten away at the concrete over the years. He said the grooves are a product of fluoride drip when changing the barrels, and another dip in the concrete outside the room attests to an accident where Lucas said the fluoride was spilled. 

“Frankly, I don't like dealing with it just because it is so corrosive,” Lucas said. “If you get it on your skin you can get burned. It can get nasty if you don't get it off right away.” 

Even with the dangers of handling the substance, Lucas said there are no accidents at the plants with employees in recent memory.

By the time the fluoridated water reaches your kitchen sink, the fluoride is diluted to an average .27 parts per million, but some residents are expressing concern that it’s too high for consumption.

Fluoridation is something the plant takes very seriously.

Lucas said the water is tested three or four times a day to make sure the fluoridation is at recommended levels, and that an accident that would spill dangerous levels of fluoride into the water would be “very unlikely.” 

That doesn’t mean there’s never cause for adjustment, though.

Employees keep an even stricter eye on fluoride levels during and after heavy rainstorms, because sometimes the natural fluoride surpasses the benchmark .27 ppm levels of fluoride in the water. 

“The fluoride kind of sits at the bottom of the big mountains around here, and once you get a big rain, it's going to flush into the (Nolichucky) river,” Lucas explained. 

The board will be continuing its discussion on water fluoridation with a public hearing on July 18. As for Lucas, he said he remains indifferent on the issue and will be present at future board meetings as the conversation continues.

Email Jessica Fuller at jfuller@johnsoncitypress.com. Follow Jessica on Twitter @fullerjf91. Like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jfullerJCP.

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