CLEARWATER – They demanded a debate. They settled for a rally.
Nearly 150 people turned out at the Harborview Center in downtown Clearwater on Thursday to hear chemistry experts who oppose fluoridation assail Pinellas County’s recent decision to add fluoride to the bulk of the area’s water supply.
The tenor at the “Great Fluoride Debate” was grim. Paul Connett, a professor of chemistry at St. Lawrence University, and William Hirzy, a chemist and union representative with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, took turns challenging information presented by county officials, the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention and other organizations that promote the benefits of fluoride.
They accused the county of adding a toxic substance to the water, and directed their attacks at an empty table set up for Pick Talley, the Pinellas utility director, and Dr. John Heilman, the county health department director. Both declined to show up for the debate.
“They should be able to squash us like flies,” Connett said, noting all the experts county officials have cited. “Why is it their confidence evaporates (when challenged)? It’s simple: It’s second-hand information.”
County officials say they declined to send a representative to a forum they viewed more as a protest. Citizens for Safe Water, a group opposed to fluoride, sponsored the debate. The crowd, many of them opponents of fluoride, applauded the scientists throughout the evening.
“Circumstances here are not ideal,” County Administrator Steve Spratt said this week. “That’s what is giving us some pause.”
Talley said he is scheduled to meet with Connett and Hirzy today in his office and listen to their point of view.
County leaders have expressed confidence in their decision to begin fluoridating the water that nearly 600,000 Pinellas residents receive. They point to St. Petersburg, Tampa and Hillsborough County, all of which have had fluoridated water for years. So do more than 160-million people across the nation.
Since the 1940s, many of the nation’s top health organizations have recommended adding small amounts of fluoride to help prevent tooth decay.
Those same health officials say Pinellas County is hardly breaking ground by adding hydrofluorosilicic acid to its water supply.
Kip Duchon, the national fluoridation engineer for the CDC, said the acid has become the most popular choice of fluoride, chosen by more than three-quarters of the public utilities that fluoridate water.
“I don’t know how anyone can say with a straight face this has not been studied,” said Duchon.
Duchon said that type of fluoride has been studied since the 1950s.
The acid is toxic in its concentrated form, like most of the more than 40 chemicals that may be used to treat water. But when hydrofluorosilicic acid is added to drinking water in small amounts below standard levels approved by the EPA, the fluoride elements separate into ions that are safe and non-toxic, Duchon said.
“I can tell you, if you stick your hand in it, it is going to burn your hand off, because that is a very strong acid,” Duchon said. “But that’s not what you are going to have in your water.”
Fluoridation opponents speak of a widespread government conspiracy that has allowed the phosphate fertilizer industry to profit from – rather than pay for – disposing of a harmful byproduct.
Those who attended the debate received an alternative chemistry lesson from the two professors.
Hirzy, who also teaches chemistry at American University, picked apart comments made by Pinellas officials.
Connett called the fluoridation argument an example of “politics overriding science.”
Connett told the room that health officials began endorsing its use in the 1950s, prior to any completed studies. He said the Pinellas County Commission should turn off the fluoride until the National Academy of Sciences completes its most recent study on the toxicology of fluoride. The study is expected to be complete in early 2005.
“If (Talley) has faith in this organization, why doesn’t he wait for their report,” Connett said.
Opponents have become more vocal since the county started fluoridating its water last month.
One opponent accused County Commission Chairwoman Susan Latvala and of “genocide” at a recent Charter Review Commission meeting. Another filed a complaint with the Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday, suggesting Talley and Heilman should be charged with “child abuse.”
St. Petersburg began adding hydrofluorosilicic acid to its water supply in 1992.