CLEARWATER – It’s being billed as “The Great Fluoride Debate.” But only one side is likely to make an argument.
Citizens for Safe Water, a political action committee formed last year by fluoride opponents, has challenged Pinellas County officials to defend a 2003 decision to add fluoride to the county water supply.
The group has rented Harborview Center in Clearwater for the evening of July 8 and is flying in two chemistry experts to make the case against the cavity-fighting chemical.
So far, county officials have declined. They say they are concerned the group is staging a protest disguised as a civil discussion.
“We are not going to convince those opponents,” said Pick Talley, the county’s utilities director. “They are pretty set with their set of facts. I don’t think there is any public purpose to continue to debate the issue when it shouldn’t be decided by debate. It should be decided by scientific fact.”
Last month Pinellas officials began adding fluoride to the county’s water supply, which serves about 600,000 people. Pinellas officials say fluoride in the water is proven to help fight tooth decay. St. Petersburg, Tampa and Hillsborough County have been adding fluoride to their water for years, as have communities serving more than 160-million people across the nation.
County officials say they relied on the advice of some of the nation’s leading health authorities, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, the American Medical Association and the American Water Works Association.
Dr. Paul Connett, a chemistry professor at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., and William Hirzy, a senior scientist from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, are prepared to challenge that information.
“I have made a blanket offer to any community that is confronted with fluoridation issues to come down and debate,” Connett said by phone from his office at the university. “But as you have probably discovered, the proponents lack that confidence when anybody knows something about the issue.”
The two have challenged Talley and Dr. John Heilman, director of the county health department. Both have declined.
Talley said the county allowed ample time for debate at public hearings prior to last year’s vote. Talley questioned why Connett and Hirzy have decided to make their case in Pinellas, rather than with higher level public health officials.
“One hundred and sixty million people are getting fluoride now,” Talley said. “Why come to Pinellas and have the debate here, when he is a lot closer to New York City or Washington, D.C.?”
Heilman said fluoride has been a “strong weapon” against tooth decay since the 1940s and has been proven over time to be safe in small doses. “The people that oppose fluoride are going to oppose it no matter what I say,” Heilman said last month. “They certainly aren’t going to convince me otherwise.”
Opponents say fluoride is dangerous, especially to children, and that there are no health studies proving hydrofluorosilicic acid, the type of fluoride being added in Pinellas, is safe. They say fluoride is the byproduct of the phosphate fertilizer industry, a fact that both Talley and Heilman do not dispute.
Peter Glickman, president of Citizens for Safe Water, and 14 others tried to get the county’s charter review commission to add language to the November ballot that would ask voters to decide if they want fluoride in the water. The committee declined, saying that was a proper policy decision for the county commissioners.
He said he hopes the county will see the value in a spirited debate.
“If I had it in my power, I’d love for them to send the very best people who propose fluoride,” Glickman said. “I wish they could fly someone in from the CDC. We really want the best from both sides so some conclusion can be reached.”
Connett teaches environmental chemistry and toxicology and uses fluoridation to illustrate the intersection of “science and politics.” He and other members of the St. Lawrence faculty convinced the community in Canton, N.Y. to stop fluoridating the water last year.
“When we have a chance to talk with people who have an open mind, we win hands down,” Connett said. “What’s difficult is when people have a closed mind.”
County Administrator Steve Spratt said he is concerned about the structure, saying he’s not certain he wants to subject anyone representing the county to what may be a hostile environment.
Glickman said he has contacted the League of Women Voters, hoping they can send a moderator. He has yet to receive confirmation.
“What is the agenda? How is it supposed to work?” Spratt asked. “If it’s a demonstration, a protest event, we will have to weigh that with what kind of contribution we can make.”