Martin County residents won’t be able to taste it, but they’ll soon be fighting tooth decay with every sip of county water.

The Martin County Commission on Tuesday favored adding “therapeutic levels” of fluoride to the county’s water supply.

When added to drinking water, fluoride has been shown to strengthen tooth enamel and prevent decay. Martin is one of only two counties on Florida’s east coast that doesn’t put fluoride in its water.

“I think it’s a pretty simple solution to doing something that can make a significate difference,” Commissioner Doug Smith said.

Commissioners said they were surprised by the number of young children in the county who have early signs of dental problems. Out of 100 children screened by Martin County’s Head Start program, 83 showed signs of tooth decay.

“This is one of the easiest decisions a county can make,” said Sharon Lippisch, president of the Healthy Start Coalition. “Doing this is so much cheaper then having to take children to the dentist. The children that will most benefit from this, aren’t the children who are going to drink bottled water.”

The commission voted 4-1 in favor, with Commissioner Susan Valliere dissenting, to apply for a federal grant to pay for equipment, installation and engineering fees estimated to cost about $90,000. Each year, it will cost the county about 50 cents per resident to continue the fluoridation program.

Valliere is skeptical about the fluoride treatment, citing studies that say the program can cause medical problems such as bone brittleness.

“Fluoridation of public water is a growing controversy,” Valliere said. “If we can spend money on fluoridation, we can certainly spend money on an independent expert.”

If the grant is approved, the county could begin adding fluoride to its water by 2004.