Collier County’s utility has been providing fluoride since 1985 in its water system, which now has 156,100 customers, so county commissioners made the right decision Tuesday not to change that.
Commissioners Tim Nance, Penny Taylor and Donna Fiala favored keeping it. Commissioner Tom Henning wanted it removed. Commissioner Georgia Hiller voted in the 4-1 majority because she wants it decided in a November ballot question.
Even without a referendum, it can be an issue in the election. Three or four of the five commission faces could change by November. Voters can hear from candidates this summer where they stand, using it as a factor in casting ballots.
Taylor is two years into her term. The other four commissioners have served four to eight years. To change a system that’s been in place this many years, on their way out the door, would have been a mistake.
For starters, a newly constituted commission simply could have reversed them. The Pinellas County Commission (St. Petersburg) voted 4-3 to stop fluoridating water; a year later, it was reversed 6-1.
Pro and con
Tuesday’s commission meeting was a point-counterpart on health effects of fluoride.
* Freedom of choice — Point: A government shouldn’t decide which medications anyone receives, including fluoride in water. Counterpoint: Beneficiaries are children, many from lower-income families, and adults have the means of choosing to ingest tap or fluoride-free water.
* Nature — Point: Fluoride is a byproduct of the phosphate industry and is thus toxic and unsafe. Counterpoint: Fluoride is a naturally occurring mineral, the 13th most abundant on earth, and is in most everything.
* Science — Point: Fluoride leads to maladies from lower IQ and neurological ills to bone weakness. Counterpoint: Fluoride has been recognized as dentally beneficial since 1945, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls it one of the top 10 medical advances of the 20th Century. Speakers on each side of the issue acknowledged anyone can find studies or science to back their point of view.
* Warning label — Point: Fluoride is dangerous, as evidenced by the warning label on toothpaste that says if more than what’s used for brushing is swallowed, “get medical help or contact a poison control center right away.” Counterpoint: Nobody has died from eating toothpaste; it would take a child eating two tubes to create a danger; he or she would regurgitate by then.
Healthy debate is a plus and it’s admirable so many citizens and experts participated Tuesday. Nearly 80 people registered to speak, an unheard of number when it comes to public participation at government meetings in Collier.
Among them were Dr. Johnny Johnson, a pediatric dentist who was active in reinstating fluoride in Pinellas; Dr. Scott Tomar from the University of Florida College of Dentistry, which operates a vital dental clinic east of Naples; and Dr. Paul Connett of the Fluoride Action Network, which campaigns to eliminate it in public supplies.
Also notable were remarks by Dr. Allen Weiss, CEO of NCH Healthcare System, who pointed out that dentists support fluoridation though they would have every financial incentive to want it eliminated to create a greater need for their services.
Much of the public comment was national in scope, with little focused on experiences in Collier. Tomar, however, related experiences of UF’s clinic and dental screening of Collier children by third grade, showing two-thirds have tooth decay.
Henning focused on that, comparing communities that have fluoridated water to statistics on tooth decay problems at individual Collier schools. Nearly 53,000 customers on Naples’ system, 15,400 on the one serving Golden Gate and 26,800 in Immokalee also receive fluoride. Systems in Marco Island and Ave Maria don’t.
His conclusion, however, ignored variables such as students changing schools; those who may have arrived recently from another region; those residing in 40,000 households on private wells in Collier or who may not even be drinking tap water, or families scrimping on dental hygiene, as other commissioners noted.
In the end, the commission majority got this right.