CLEARWATER – After decades of resisting one of the most recognized trends in preventing tooth decay, Pinellas County relented Tuesday and agreed to add fluoride to the bulk of the county’s water supply.
County commissioners voted 6-1 in favor of fluoridating water that serves more than 600,000 of the county’s residents. St. Petersburg, Dunedin, Gulfport and Belleair already add fluoride to their water supplies.
The decision means that Pinellas County will no longer hold claim to being the largest water supplier in the eastern U.S. that does not fluoridate its water supply.
But it did not come without objection. Commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd, the longest-serving board member, voted no.
“Why on earth would we want to put this in people’s drinking water?” asked Todd, who spoke on behalf of several audience members who protested the concept earlier this month. “I believe we have a responsibility to the citizens . . . to provide a safe drinking water supply.”
But Todd was clearly in the minority as her colleagues overwhelming adopted a concept first used in the 1940s that now, among health officials, is widely considered among the 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century.
“It’s time has come,” said Commissioner Bob Stewart, who served on the St. Petersburg City Council when the city decided to add fluoride to its water in the early 1990s. “We made the decision then and I think it’s past time for us to do it, as well.”
Utilities director Pick Talley said they would likely begin adding fluorosilicic acid, the same chemical used in St. Petersburg and Tampa, after an educational campaign that could take six to eight months.
Talley said notices will go out in the mail with water bills. The county also will send letters to homes, schools and medical facilities. They will take out public service announcements on television, radio and in newspapers.
Besides serving unincorporated residents, the county supplies water to 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.
By choosing to add fluoride to the water, the county joins communities serving more than 162-million people nationwide. In the bay area, Tampa and Hillsborough County also fluoridate their water.
Stewart said the county has held back because of a small but active group of opponents. Many of the people who opposed the St. Petersburg decision were among those at the courthouse protesting the county’s action.
“There were one or two attempts I could liken to sticking a toe in the water,” Stewart said. “There was such objection from that vocal part of the county that the commission did not want to do it.”
Among those people were Winston Kao, 52 of Clearwater.
“Fluoride is a toxin,” Kao said. “The fact that there are maximum contamination levels, and that they will be below that, does not justify that. They should not be putting a toxin in the water in the first place, at any level.”
Kao’s concerns were shared by Todd, who was first elected to the board in 1980 and has been among those strongly opposed to fluoridation through the years.
Todd handed out medical studies and newspaper articles to make her point. She said fluorosilicic acid comes from phosphate mines and can be toxic. She asked fellow commissioners to hold off on the decision until a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study is completed in November 2004.
But her colleagues did not agree.
Commission Chairwoman Karen Seel said they had discussed the issue at length at an Aug. 12 work session that Todd did not attend.
The study is focusing on higher concentrations of fluoride – four parts per million – and the county is considering adding 0.8 parts per million, Seel said.
Of the more than two dozen people from the audience who spoke at the work session, about half were dentists and health professionals who voiced support for the concept.
The American Dental Association, the American Medical Association and the CDC all recommend adding fluoride to the water.
“I know it was really controversial in the past,” Seel said. “We just felt it was the right thing to do. . . . This commission really looked at the data and the studies, and made an informed and deliberate decision that this is best for our citizens.
– Michael Sandler can be reached at 445-4162 or email@example.com