CLEARWATER – After listening to about three hours of testimony, mostly against, Pinellas County commissioners voted, 6-1, Nov. 27 to return fluoride to its public drinking water.
Pinellas County Utilities will begin adding fluoride to the water it sells sometime around March 1, 2013. The delay is to allow time for notice to go out in a complete cycle of bi-monthly water bills. The public also will be informed of the change via media coverage and posting on the county’s website. Notice will be given to all appropriate agencies, as well as Utilities wholesale customers.
The level of fluoride will be maintained at 0.7 parts per million, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Bob Powell, director of Water and Sewer for the Department of Environment and Infrastructure, said some of the equipment at the Keller Plant used to monitor fluoride levels needed replacement at an estimated cost of about $25,000. Estimated annual operating costs for fluoridation is $160,000.
Fluoride was removed from Pinellas County’s drinking water Jan. 1, after a 4-3 decision with Commissioners John Morroni, Norm Roche, Nancy Bostock and Neil Brickfield voting for its removal.
Bostock and Brickfield lost their bid for reelection in the Nov. 6 election. Their replacements, Charlie Justice and Janet Long, both advocates of fluoridation, made the issue part of their election campaigns. Long promised if elected, she would bring the matter back to the commission. Her motion to place the matter on the Nov. 27 agenda was approved Nov. 20.
Only Commissioner Norm Roche was swayed by the public’s outcry. Roche said he had been opposed to fluoridation since it was first approved by the commission in 2003.
“It’s very clear to me today there are questions and fluoride should not be added to the water,” he said.
Commissioner Ken Welch maintained his position in support of the additive.
“Fluoride is safe,” Welch said, citing statements on the CDC’s website. “It’s a safe, cost effective way to prevent cavities. The commission is responsible for public health. This has been done in the U.S. for more than 50 years and 20 years in St. Pete.”
Commissioners first listened to about a half dozen people in support of fluoridation. Their chief argument was the benefit of the additive to prevent cavities, especially for children who could not afford dental care.
Dr. Claude Dharamraj, director of Pinellas County Health Department, said fluoridated water was an inexpensive and simple way to prevent the most chronic disease in children – dental caries. She referred to a Nov. 20 statement to Pinellas County from Dr. William Bailey, acting director of the Division of Oral Health for the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion for the CDC.
“Community water fluoridation has been shown to be effective in reducing the number and severity of cavities and is a major reason that Americans today have better overall dental health,” Bailey said. “Currently, more than 200 million people, or 73.9 percent of the U.S. population served by public water supplies, drink water with optimal fluoride levels to prevent tooth decay. This is an increase of nearly 9 million people since 2008.”
Bailey also addressed the question of safety, saying, “For many years, panels of experts from different health and scientific fields have concluded that there is strong evidence that water fluoridation is safe and effective.”
However, about 40 speakers lined up to oppose fluoridation. Their statements included concerns about possible adverse health effects, including the lowering of IQs and a harmful buildup of fluoride in bones and tissues. They continued to point to studies by medical experts and scientists who question the safety of adding certain types of fluoride to drinking water supplies.
Richard Davis, a seventh generation Pinellas County resident with a doctorate in medicine who works with the Food and Drug Administration as an expert on clinical trials, said the many studies being used by both sides to make their cases were hard to interpret, attributing to the level of controversy.
He said with information currently available there was no way for commissioners to know for sure if fluoridation was completely safe for people and animals.
“No one can say fluoride is harmless,” he said.
Many opposed to fluoridation said the commission did not have the authority to medicate the public without its consent.
“We want to make our own medical choices,” said Regina Brown of Largo. “This is outside your scope.”