DUNEDIN — Twenty years after the city controversially added fluoride to drinking water, budget planners are studying whether it makes sense to eliminate the additive as a way to cut costs.
If the city doesn’t put fluoride in the water anymore, it can save the $13,000 annual expense for the fluoride and also avoid spending $40,000 to replace the city’s aging fluoride storage tank.
“If we’re going to do it, since it’s a 20-year life span on the tank, this would be a good year to do it,” said Paul Stanek, assistant utilities director.
The recommendation is one of several under discussion by planners who asked all city department heads to submit cost-cutting ideas as they prepare next year’s budget.
The City Commission will formally adopt next year’s budget after public hearings in September. The new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
If the past is any indicator, it won’t be easy for commissioners to decide what to do about the fluoride.
In 1992, Dunedin became the second Pinellas County city to fluoridate its water, adding fuel to a debate that has raged in this region for more than five decades.
At several public hearings in 1989, a proposal to fluoridate the water drew supporters, who championed fluoride as an integral weapon in the battle against tooth decay, and critics, who countered that fluoride caused everything from cancer to wrinkles to AIDS.
In a 4-1 vote, commissioners that year granted the public works director’s request that they approve fluoridation in advance so the equipment could be included in the design of a water treatment plant the city was building. The federal government also contributed a grant to pay for installation of fluoridation equipment and a two-year supply of fluoride.
Six weeks before the 1992 launch, the issue was raised again by a new council member who wasn’t part of the original vote. Officials voted to go ahead with the measure.
Belleair was the first city in Pinellas to begin adding fluoride to its water. St. Petersburg, Gulfport and Pinellas County have since followed suit.
The American Dental Association has supported water fluoridation since 1950, five years after an experimental trial launched in four U.S. communities showed the substance reduced tooth decay by 60 percent.
ADA spokesman Dr. Howard Pollick said data from 2008 — the most recent year available — showed 72 percent of public water supplies across the country were accessing fluoridated water.
Pollick said fluoride is a cost-effective way to ensure protection against decay, regardless of age, socioeconomic status or access to dental care. Citizens save $38 in dental treatment for every $1 invested in water fluoridation, according to the ADA.
“We have seen communities in this current economic climate want to save money by stopping fluoridation,” said Pollick, a clinical professor at the University of California at San Francisco and a dentist for 44 years.
“But we feel it’s shortsighted,” he said, “because it’ll just increase costs over time, not only for the cost of dental care, but the suffering that comes from tooth decay — the toothaches, the infections.”
Members of a very vocal antifluoride movement aren’t convinced.
For example, Tom Nocera, who heads the region’s Citizens for Safe Water advocacy group, cites research that he said shows fluoride attacks glands and bones when ingested.
He said there’s also concern about overexposure to fluoride, especially given the prevalence of fluoride from toothpaste, foods and other natural sources. High levels of fluoride can damage tooth enamel, a condition called fluorosis.
“If (Dunedin officials) have to justify it on economic means, that’s fine with me,” said Nocera, 62, of Clearwater. “Whatever it takes to get it out of the water supplies.”
For his part, Stanek said the controversy surrounding fluoride played no part in the water department’s budget proposal.
“We’re just looking at it from the financial end of things,” he said. “Ultimately, it’ll be up the commission to decide.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently lowered its recommendation on water fluoridation levels. In the past, the federal government suggested communities maintain fluoride levels between 0.7 and 1.2 milligrams per liter. Early this year, officials said 0.7 mg/L is sufficient, given the extra sources of fluoride present in today’s society, including in mouthwash and toothpaste products.