In a second go-around over the hotly debated issue of fluoridating public water, the Palm Beach County Commission on Tuesday rejected arguments that the additive is harmful and clashed with a recommendation by the county’s top administrator to stop the practice.
In a 4-3 vote, the commission decided to keep fluoridating water that reaches 480,000 residents in unincorporated Palm Beach County. The majority of commissioners didn’t want to decide fluoridation‘s fate until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency responds to a study that prompted officials to re-evaluate.
County Administrator Bob Weisman, who recommended halting fluoridation, said he wouldn’t expect a federal response for five to 10 years. The county began fluoridating its water 18 months ago.
“When I read the report, there are a lot of concerns they raised,” said Weisman, who pored through 200 pages of the National Research Council Study earlier this month.
The report cited fluoride‘s long-term effects on bone strength, kidney function, tooth enamel loss and pitting, and a tentative connection to bone cancer. The research, though, focused on the highest level of fluoride sanctioned by the EPA, which is 4 milligrams per liter. Fluoride in drinking water ranges from .7 to 1.2 milligrams per liter, and the county’s level is .8.
The two-hour debate brought a mix of science and rhetoric from about 25 people who spoke before commissioners. The camps split between views that fluoridation is a “massive human experiment” or that ending it would be a “return to the Dark Ages.”
The county’s health director, Dr. Jean Malecki, said fluoride is safe and benefits everyone, especially low-income children. Others, including pediatric dentists, agreed. Fluoride is credited with reducing tooth decay by up to 40 percent.
Opponents countered that the chemical leads to health problems, including thyroid disease. The issue stirs such passion because of divergent opinions on its health effects.
“Swallowing fluoride makes as much sense as swallowing sun-block,” Paul Connett, an environmental chemistry and toxicology specialist who teaches at St. Lawrence University in New York, said at the meeting.
Deb Wiggins, of West Palm Beach, described fluoridation as the “unselective dosing of the masses” and said it would be better to “figure out how we can force-feed broccoli to children” instead of fluoridating water on their behalf.
The National Research Council reviewed past data but did not perform new studies in its three-year analysis. Dr. John Doull, one of the 12 commissioned scientists, has said the report was not meant to be a statement against fluoridation. It focused on areas where fluoride occurs naturally in water and is recommending the EPA lower its 4 milligrams per liter high.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has maintained its support of fluoridation despite the research council study.
Fara Bender, of Greenacres, urged commissioners to continue fluoridation for the sake of her two young children and all children in unincorporated Palm Beach County. Bender, a pediatric dentist, said she sees many cases of young children who need root canals and tooth extractions. Fluoridated water helps them, she said.
“We have one side bringing up doctors that say it’s bad and the other side that says it’s good,” County Commissioner Burt Aaronson said. “If you want to turn around and go from .8 to .7, that’s one thing. If not, I’m against turning off the spigot until we get the EPA study.”
Weisman, the county administrator, said he doesn’t plan to recommend a drop in the county’s fluoride level. Aaronson and commissioners Addie Greene, Warren Newell and Jeff Koons voted to keep the program, while commissioners Karen Marcus, Tony Masilotti and Mary McCarty voted no.