The decades-old debate over fluoridation of local drinking water took center stage at an Emerald Coast Utilities Authority committee meeting Wednesday.
The often-contentious issue pitted medical and dental experts against a lone utility board member, Elizabeth Campbell, and a group of concerned citizens at the Citizen Advisory Committee meeting.
The off-and-on struggle regarding fluoridation of drinking water has been going on in Escambia County since the mid-1960s, when its use in water systems became widespread.
Pensacola was the last major metropolitan area in the state of Florida to adopt fluoride standards.
“Fluoridated drinking water is safe and efficient,” said Andy Trammell, president of the Escambia-Santa Rosa Dental Association. “It reaches individuals in all socioeconomic groups … not just people who visit the dentist.”
Campbell took office in 2008 after running on a single-issue platform of removing fluoride from the region’s water. On Wednesday, she said emerging research raises red flags about fluoride’s safety.
“Any good business reviews its policies,” she said. “As long as we are not sure if we are harming anyone with the ingestion of fluoride, we should take it out.”
The debate could be moot as four of the five ECUA board members said after the meeting that they support keeping fluoride in the water.
The medical community, including the American Dental Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says fluoride is instrumental in the prevention of cavities and tooth decay. The CDC’s 2006 survey showed that close to 70 percent of the nation’s public water systems participate in fluoridation.
“It never hurts to revisit issues like this,” ECUA board chairwoman Lois Benson said. “I didn’t hear any new information that additional problems outweigh the need for fluoride in the water.”
Larry Walker, who presided over the board during the debate more than a decade ago, said little has changed on both sides of the issue, but he is willing to consider whatever new research might have emerged.
However, he said, “I would be hard-pressed to change my position.”
In Florida, more than 76 percent of the people served by community water systems receive fluoridated water. The process has led to a reduction in cavities between 40 percent and 60 percent, the Florida Department of Health said.
“I can only tell you that fluoridation of the water supply has been described by the (CDC) as one of the top 10 health achievements of the 20th century,” said Dr. John Lanza, director of the Escambia County Health Department. “One has to be concerned for the children and adults who would suffer if fluoride is removed.”
But those opposed to fluoride in the drinking water say that there are too many unknowns to keep it running through the water taps.
Rebekah Johansen, a University of West Florida student, said research shows that fluoride is not safe for ingestion.
“The government of Escambia County has no right to mass medicate its citizens,” she told the ECUA committee.
The committee took no action and the issue is expected to come up again next week at the board’s regular Thursday meeting as a discussion item.
If Campbell makes a motion that isn’t supported by any other members, then the issue won’t go before the board for action.