Pinellas County dentists are responsibly exploring ways to reverse a foolish decision by county commissioners to stop adding fluoride to the county’s drinking water. But while allowing voters to revisit the issue in a referendum in 2012 has some appeal, there is a more direct approach that is less likely to produce unintended consequences. A majority of the County Commission will be up for re-election next year, and voters should support candidates who have more regard for established science and public health.
The well-intentioned dentists whose reasoned arguments for fluoride were drowned out in October by a wave of tea party conservatives and a handful of fringe health care voices are continuing to fight. After all, someone has to bring some professionalism and sanity to this debate and try to correct a serious error in judgment. But a voter referendum aimed at requiring Pinellas to add fluoride back into the drinking water after it is removed at the end of this year is problematic for several reasons.
First, it’s difficult and expensive to get a referendum question on the ballot. It would require gathering more than 60,000 voter signatures, and the cost to promote the issue would be substantial. Getting the voters’ attention in a presidential election year for a scientific issue could be difficult.
Second, the county charter is not the best place for resolving such issues. A general ballot question could leave too much to chance and adding too many specifics about fluoride into the charter would handcuff future county officials who might want to make adjustments to specific levels.
A referendum also could backfire. Fluoride opponents could continue to engage in scare tactics, spread misinformation and confuse the issue. And a poorly executed amendment could result in defeat and even put at risk the current addition of fluoride to drinking water in St. Petersburg and a handful of other Pinellas communities.
There is a clearer way to right this wrong. Two of the four commissioners who face re-election next year voted to keep adding fluoride to Pinellas drinking water: Ken Welch and Karen Seel. The other two commissioners voted to stop adding fluoride: Nancy Bostock and Neil Brickfield. Voters who believe in the value of science and public health should back candidates who voted to keep adding fluoride to the water, and they should hold those who didn’t accountable for their irrational, indefensible position.