The Senate Committee on Health, Hospitals, and Human Services on Tuesday advanced a bill that, if it becomes law, would adjust the required amount of fluoride levels in fresh water administered for public consumption, specifically water consumed in U.S. Virgin Islands schools, to create what legislators are calling a school fluoride rinse program.
V.I. Department of Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion said the territory’s drinking water has a fluoride level of 0.8 milligrams per liter, but according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services the optimal fluoride level should be 0.7 milligrams.
She added the American Dental Association supports the recommendation as “an effective measure to provide protection against tooth decay.”
However, V.I. Water and Power Authority CEO Noel Hodge said the authority is not mandated or required to inject fluoride in the potable water system, and “does not utilize fluoride in their day-to-day water distribution operations.” Hodge went on to tell the committee that the authority will comply with any mandates from the Environmental Protection Agency or the Department of Planning and Natural Resources.
Other testifiers unequivocally supported the measure proposed by Sens. Marvin Blyden and Novelle Francis Jr. but noted overarching obstructions to optimal dental hygiene in the territory.
Dr. Sonia Taylor Griffith, executive director of the Virgin Islands Dental Association, said fluoride within the water system “strengthens tooth enamel, particularly in children, to help it be more resistant to tooth decay. … Due to current infrastructure issues with the USVI public water system at this time, only an estimated 30 percent of our population drinks tap water.”
Griffith said this eliminates the opportunity for children to benefit from having fluoride in their environment.
“This is why a school-based fluoride rinse program would be so necessary for these children and why Bill 34-0051 offers such promise for better health,” she said.
Attorney Tom Bolt, counsel to the American Dental Association and the Virgin Islands Dental Association, said in his time volunteering with the youth through the local Salvation Army he has witnessed “the serious concerns regarding the oral health of our youth.”
“We have seen children as young as three years of age with a multitude of cavities. Many do not know the rudimentary elements of oral health, let alone having a toothbrush and knowing how to use it,” Bolt said.
Though Bolt testified to the value of a school fluoride rinse program, he was challenged with understanding how the program would be overseen if the position of territorial dental director within the Department of Health hadn’t been restored.
While there was no shortage of obstacles identified by testifiers, Encarnacion said the Health Department is in the final stages of completing a community health improvement plan called Healthy Virgin Islands 2030.
The plan includes fluoride levels and consists of a framework that Encarnacion said will improve the health of the territory’s population over the course of the next 10 years. She added how the “2020 Title V needs assessment reflected that oral health is a top priority in the territory’s children population. In response, the Department’s Maternal and Child Health Program is currently working on implementing oral health in the MCH clinics.”
Separately, the committee advanced a bill which would create a multistate nursing license. The bill had been rejected by the Rules and Judiciary Committee in May. The Health, Hospitals, and Human Services Committee has approved the bill again and it now awaits the scrutiny of the Rules and Judiciary Committee.
Sens. Blyden, Francis, Samuel Carrion, Kenneth Gittens, Alma Francis-Heyliger, Janelle Sarauw, and Kurt Vialet were present for the hearing. Additional non-committee members were also present.