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Why drinking water fluoride levels were mysteriously low in the town of Richmond, Vermont

A photo of water pouring into a clear glass, against a grey background, slightly darker in the lower half and slightly lighter in the top half
For the last few years, town drinking water in Richmond has had less than half the state-recommended level of fluoride in it.

For the last few years, town drinking water in Richmond, Vermont has had less than half the state-recommended level of fluoride in it.

Last month, town officials found out why. Richmond's water superintendent —longtime town worker Kendall Chamberlin — had been lowering the fluoride levels.

Seven Daysreporter Kevin McCallum has been following this story. He spoke with Vermont Public's Mitch Wertlieb, and their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: How was the situation about reduced fluoride levels first discovered?

Kevin McCallum: The discovery by town officials has been fairly recent, after the state of Vermont noted and told them that there was an issue. But this has apparently been something that the state has been aware of in some fashion for more than three years.

Well, how was this town worker, Kendall Chamberlin, what was he doing that caused a failure of state compliance for Richmond regarding the state's fluoridation program?

So essentially, what happened was Mr. Chamberlin unilaterally decided to lower the amount of sodium fluoride that he and his employees at the water treatment plant were adding to the water supply. And he says he did so for several reasons, one of which was a concern that the sodium fluoride was from China.

Now, he says he had heard and read, or maybe seen on television, some stories about the quality control of products coming from China. So he claimed that he was very worried about the actual chemicals that were being put in the water. And he says he just likes to err on the side of being conservative. And if there was any way to meet the goals of the state, while limiting the amount of chemicals that got added to the water, that he thought that was the best thing to do.

Is there any indication whatsoever, any evidence that anything regarding the water in Richmond, Vermont had anything to do with anything coming from China? 

Well, on this point, it is apparently true that the sodium fluoride that was being added to the water in Richmond, and many places, is in fact sourced from China. The question is whether that's a problem.

More from Vermont Public: After More Than 30 Years, Rutland Is Reconsidering Fluoride In City Water

Well, Kevin, you mentioned before that Kendall Chamberlin and employees of the town of Richmond were responsible for the fluoride levels here. Did any of the employees who work with Chamberlin know that he was doing this, lowering the levels?

That's not clear to me. I mean, he's the superintendent of the water system, it's very clear that he's in charge of the water system. And all indications that I get are that while employees may have been the ones to actually set the levels, or start the pumps, or add the fluoride at a certain time, he was the one in charge of that and instructing them on the levels to keep the fluoride. And he was very clear with town officials that he decided to set it at half the level of what the state recommended out of a generalized concern for safety, and a belief that residents were getting fluoride from other sources like toothpaste, and so therefore lowering the level was not that big a deal.

Well, on this question of safety, the Vermont Department of Health says they consider the addition of fluoride to drinking water to be “one of the 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century.” Fluoride is known to prevent tooth decay, especially in children. Health officials say it is also a cost effective way to improve oral health. What was the reaction from residents in Richmond, when they found out these fluoride levels were being reduced in their drinking water? 

They were quite stunned, I would say. There were multiple residents, including dentists and doctors, as well as just regular citizens, who felt that what had happened was surprising, was inappropriate, and was very concerning.

The real problem that residents have with this is the lack of notification, is not knowing that this had happened for multiple years. And that just struck me as very wrong.

Are there any indications you have that state officials perhaps knew about this a lot sooner than was recently revealed?

Well knew about it, or took note of it are very different, right? So the interesting thing about this story is that it's not really a story completely about someone acting unilaterally and in secret and telling no one, right. So the water levels and the water testing done in Richmond, just like other communities, is very rigorous, so they have to report to the state. So the reports that Mr. Chamberlin filed with the state of Vermont, on a monthly basis, showed very clearly the fluoride levels in the water were lower than they had been in previous years. It's just that there's no indication that he told city officials that that's what he was doing, nor that he highlighted this change for state officials. So while it is contained in state reports, it doesn't look like the state really was aware of it until more recently.

Well, the meeting that you referenced before, on Monday, was the Richmond Water and Sewer Commission, and they voted during that meeting, 5-0, as I understand it, to raise the fluoride levels in the town to the required state levels. What is the fallout for Kendall Chamberlin, if any, following these revelations?

Good question. He appeared briefly at the meeting by video just long enough to issue an apology. He said, "words cannot express how sorry I am for causing this controversy." And so it's definitely possible he’ll face some disciplinary action. He, in an interview with us before the meeting, acknowledged that that seemed to be where things were headed for him.

But he is a 37-year employee of the town of Richmond. He seems to have been using his best judgment to do the right thing for the quality of the water in Richmond as he saw fit. And so I think those two things may suggest that while his actions were definitely criticized by both members of the commission and the city manager, and members of the public, that it's hard to say whether he will face any significant disciplinary action over this.

And Kevin, before I let you go, what do we know about the fluoride levels in Richmond's drinking water right now? Have they come back up to state levels?

I'm not sure because they only decided on Monday to raise them. They decided to raise them immediately. That could suggest that as early as Tuesday morning, Mr. Chamberlin was charged with adding fluoride to the water, and that's something I probably need to follow up on.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet your thoughts to @mwertlieb.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Karen is Vermont Public's Director of Radio Programming, serving Vermonters by overseeing the sound of Vermont Public's radio broadcast service. Karen has a long history with public radio, beginning in the early 2000's with the launch of the weekly classical music program, Sunday Bach. Karen's undergraduate degree is in Broadcast Journalism, and she has worked for public radio in Vermont and St. Louis, MO, in areas of production, programming, traffic, operations and news. She has produced many projects for broadcast over the years, including the Vermont Public Choral Hour, with host Linda Radtke, and interviews with local newsmakers with Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb. In 2021 Karen worked with co-producer Betty Smith on a national collaboration with StoryCorps One Small Step, connecting Vermonters one conversation at a time.
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