Citing overwhelming public-health benefits, most Palm Beach County commissioners are leaning toward adding fluoride to the county water system.
Before the 350,000 people served by the Water Utilities Department get fluoridated water, the County Commission must weigh the science, emotion and politics.
Adding fluoride to the water is an obvious step to Robert H. Dumbaugh, dental director of the county Health Department.
“We know how effective water fluoridation is. It is absurd for us to try and treat disease from the back end when we could try to prevent it from the front end,” he said.
He said fluoride in the water could prevent lost school and work days, reduce pain and decrease health costs. And it comes cheap. “The cost of a lifetime of fluoridation for an individual is less than the cost of one filling.”
County Commissioners Karen Marcus and Mary McCarty are wary. They are the only two who were in office when the issue came up in the early 1990s, and both said they still wear the political scars.
Marcus and McCarty said the county decided to go ahead with fluoridation, then reversed the decision in 1991 in the face of enormous public opposition. McCarty said her colleagues who think fluoridation is such a great idea might be surprised when they see the commission chamber overflowing with opponents.
Lee Marlow will probably be there.
She brought in experts as part of an unsuccessful fight against Wellington’s 2000 decision to fluoridate. Her family has not used tap water for drinking or cooking since.
Although she said she would not be directly affected by a county decision, she’s ready to get involved again. “If I know that the County Commission is going to try to pull the wool over everybody’s eyes, I’ll bring everybody back.”
Pat Moreell of Boca Raton fought the county’s attempt to fluoridate in the early 1990s and her city’s attempt to fluoridate at the end of that decade.
“These people in Palm Beach County are so fortunate that they have been spared for all these years of ingesting a deadly poison on a daily basis,” she said.
Another opponent is Dr. Hyman Roberts of West Palm Beach, husband of former County Commissioner Carol Roberts. He believes fluoridated water is dangerous and provides no health benefits. “It would be a travesty if they fluoridate all of the unincorporated areas,” he said.
Circumstances may have changed enough to allow fluoridation to proceed. Dr. Jean Malecki, director of the Palm Beach County Health Department, favors the idea. Malecki actually works for the state, but most county commissioners routinely express great confidence in her.
Also, five of the seven commissioners weren’t in office when the controversy last erupted. And most of those who didn’t go through it before said they favor proceeding with fluoridation unless they hear some unexpected and overwhelming evidence against the idea.
Commissioner Addie Greene said the opposition would not deter her.
“The dentists in Palm Beach County are laughing at us, saying we’re making them rich,” Greene said.
The county Health Department reports that fluoridation is done 68 percent nationwide, 70 percent in Florida and 25 percent in Palm Beach County. Boynton Beach, Delray Beach, West Palm Beach, Wellington, Belle Glade, Pahokee and South Bay near Lake Okeechobee fluoridate their water.
Miami-Dade County began fluoridation in 1952 and Broward County began in 1972. Martin County voted to begin fluoridation last year and rural Okeechobee County started it in the 1980s.
Assistant County Administrator Jean Creamer said the cost of fluoridating the county water system would be minimal — $500,000 to $600,000 to refit three plants, then $75,000 a year for chemicals and maintenance.
County Administrator Bob Weisman, who said he and his staff would not make a recommendation either way to the commission, said it would come down to what commissioners believe. The commission is tentatively scheduled to discuss the issue July 15.
“It’s an emotional issue — beyond the facts — whether you’re pro or con,” he said.
Much of what the two sides say is diametrically opposed.
Marlow contend that cancer and heart disease have increased in areas where water is fluoridated. Dumbaugh said the U.S. surgeon general would not recommend fluoridation if it were dangerous.
>Marlow and Moreell said children who drink fluoridated water get speckled teeth. Dumbaugh said that doesn’t come from fluoride in the water but from young children who swallow large amounts of toothpaste when their brushing is not supervised.
>Moreell and Roberts said the fluoride additive is a toxic byproduct of phosphate fertilizer production, and pressure to fluoridate water comes from that powerful industry. “Ever so much cheaper to sell it to the communities and say it’s very good for the children,” Moreell said.
Dumbaugh said he visited a plant and saw first-hand that the product is produced safely. Calling it a toxic byproduct, he said, “is garbage.”
Fluoride occurs naturally at about 0.2 parts per million in Palm Beach County water, Dumbaugh added. He said health authorities want 0.8 parts per million.
Dumbaugh said elected officials need to look at the overwhelming scientific evidence and exercise their responsibilities.
“The problem is the people who don’t want anybody to fool with their water because you’re adding another chemical are coming up and saying, `I don’t want you to fool with my water. God didn’t mean it to be like this,'” he said. “The problem is that the vocal minority of individuals who are opposed make so much noise that elected officials want this issue to go away.”