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Story of town employee who reduced fluoride in water goes national

A pick-up truck rolls through downtown, Wednesday Oct. 5, 2022, in Richmond, Vt. A town employee in Richmond is under fire for lowering the fluoride level in the drinking water below the state's recommended level for more than three years. A town commission has voted to return the water to full fluoridation after outrage from some residents. (AP Photo/Wilson Ring)

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Montpelier reporter Lisa Rathke, and New York colleagues — editor Jeff McMillan and news verification journalist Ali Swenson — teamed up on a story examining the controversy over a Vermont town employee who secretively reduced the fluoride in the town’s water supply for years.

Rathke, following up on a story in a local weekly, attended a Richmond, Vermont, water commission meeting hoping to learn more about the case. The issue became a central part of the meeting and Rathke was able to get a range of voices on the record, including a parent whose two children ended up with cavities. She also was able to see the employee, who never responded to her calls, apologizing to the community at the meeting via Zoom.

That could have been enough for an offbeat local story, but McMillan, fleshing out the piece, posed some questions about the issues around fluoride, its international use and how it has been a source of persistent misinformation. Enter Swenson to debunk some of the false claims around fluoride.

Rathke ensured balance in the story, including the health benefits of fluoride cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as critics’ skepticism of those benefits.

The final story — among the most-viewed on AP News las week — used the small-town controversy to tap into the larger interest in fluoride and offered yet another example of how misinformation is impacting even at a local level. It was also a textbook example of elevating a local story to one of interest nationally.

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