Two-thirds of Pinellas County residents don’t have fluoridated water, but that could soon change.
Pinellas County commissioners appear likely to vote in favor of adding fluoride, possibly in the next month.
“I don’t know why we don’t do it already,” said Commissioner Calvin Harris. “I think it’s one of those old holdovers that’s never been seriously considered. . . . I think it’s time. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that way.”
He’s not. Commissioners Ken Welch and Susan Latvala also say they want fluoridated water. Two others, Commissioner John Morroni and Karen Seel, commission chairwoman, say they’re leaning in favor of the change.
Commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd has doubts. The seventh, Bob Stewart, was out of town and couldn’t be reached.
The latest push to add fluoride is coming from Dr. John Heilman, director of the county health department. Heilman already has met individually with commissioners.
“This would be good for the county, and good for the kids,” Heilman said.
The American Dental Association, American Medical Association and several other medical groups say fluoride helps prevent tooth decay. For instance, one study cited by the dental association says that children in Grand Rapids, Mich., had 50 to 63 percent less tooth decay after that city became the first to fluoridate its drinking water.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called fluoridation one of the nation’s top 10 “public health achievements” during the 20th century.
Opponents point out that too much fluoride can cause fluorosis, white spotting on teeth. But dentists say fluoride is easier to regulate in drinking water than by giving children supplemental fluoride.
Some opponents also say fluoride can cause cancer or other ailments, but medical groups say no such links have been found, despite repeated studies.
Commissioners have talked for years about fluoridating water in Pinellas, the largest water system in Florida without fluoridated water.
In 1997, they decided against it because only two of the cities that get county water said they wanted it. In 2001, commissioners talked about it again, but decided to take a survey of city residents before making a decision.
That survey was completed over a year ago, in March 2002. That survey, of 737 Pinellas water customers, said that most residents want fluoridated water.
Almost 52 percent want fluoride. Another 36 percent couldn’t form an opinion, and 12 percent were opposed.
About half of those surveyed didn’t know whether their water contained fluoride. Close to one-fourth said it was not, while just over one-fourth thought, incorrectly, that it was.
County Administrator Steve Spratt says he may bring the fluoride issue to the June 24 meeting. The date could be pushed back because commissioners are set to debate fireworks the same day.
Pick Talley, county utilities director, also supports fluoridation. But Talley said commissioners may want to wait because a federal science council is starting a two-year review of recent studies on fluoride. But that review won’t be complete until November 2004.
Todd said she is wary of adding any chemical to food and water and wants more assurance that fluoride is safe.
“It needs to be proven to me that it’s safe and that it’s not going to have any negative impact,” she said.
Other commissioners pointed to the county’s recent water main break. In the just under two weeks it took to fix the 7-foot water pipe, some 20-million gallons of water were pumped to county water customers each day from the city of St. Petersburg.
All that water was fluoridated, and county officials received no complaints or reports of problems.
What is fluoride?
Fluoride is a naturally occurring element found in soil and water. Repeated studies have shown it helps prevent tooth decay. Fluoride makes tooth enamel less susceptible to the acid produced by dental plaque and helps enamel repair damage caused by acid, according to the American Dental Association. Fluoride is added to drinking water at extremely low levels – 0.7 to 1.2 parts per million – to promote healthy teeth.
Who gets it?
Pinellas County water customers, about two-thirds of the county, don’t get fluoride in their water. The county supplies water to unincorporated residents, Largo, Kenneth City, Seminole and Pinellas beach communities. It also sells water wholesale to Clearwater, Tarpon Springs, Pinellas Park, Safety Harbor and part of Oldsmar. The rest of the county – St. Petersburg, Dunedin, Belleair, Gulfport and most of Oldsmar – receives fluoridated water.