When he used to practice dentistry in New Jersey, Dr. Jay Nelson considered it unusual to spot a cavity, even in the mouths of candy-gobbling kids.
“We were almost wondering what we’d do in a few years there were so few cavities,” the Land O’Lakes dentist said.
He need not have worried. By the time he moved his practice to Pasco County, he discovered tons of telltale sticky brown spots on patients’ teeth. Business isn’t suffering.
The culprit in Nelson’s opinion: His New Jersey patients drank fluoridated water. Pasco residents do not.
Pasco is the only county in the three-county Tampa Bay region that hasn’t added the tooth-protecting chemical to its public water supply. Hillsborough County and Tampa did it years ago. Pinellas County is preparing to add fluoride in June.
During the past 20 years, two attempts to fluoridate Pasco’s water system failed. The cost of the equipment was the main reason the idea died. But the time might be ripe again.
Thousands of young suburban families flock to Pasco every year, many from states where fluoridation is common. More than a few residents are surprised to hear kids aren’t getting any cavity-fighting water in their sippy cups.
“Personally I think it’s a good deal to do, but we abandoned it in the past,” County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand said last week. “I would like to carry the banner again.”
The cost of buying fluoride in bulk to inject into the water supply is negligible. Pinellas, which serves about 600,000 water customers, expects to pay $115,000 a year. Users could pay an extra half-cent per 1,000 gallons.
The $600,000 to pay for machinery and tanks to handle fluoride at Pinellas’ two centralized plants temporarily raises the cost of water 2.7 cents more per 1,000 gallons, Pinellas utilities said.
“The chemical’s not that expensive, and we’re not using a whole lot of it,” said Del Sable, manager of Pinellas’ water supply.
Fluoridating Pasco water might not be so simple and inexpensive, said Doug Bramlett, the administrator who oversees the county system. Pasco gets most of its raw water wholesale from a regional utility, shared with Hillsborough and Pinellas, called Tampa Bay Water.
That supply is mixed with water drawn from myriad local wells and treated at 40 plants scattered across the county. That decentralization is a product of the days when Pasco neighborhoods supplied themselves.
“We’d have to feed fluoride into the system at every water treatment plant we have,” Bramlett said.
That could be pricey, although Bramlett couldn’t produce any figures. Hildebrand remembers estimates for equipment coming in at less than $1-million, but inflation has surely bloated those numbers.
But it could be a price residents are willing to pay as they lament the fillings and tooth extractions on their dentists’ bills.
When Pinellas debated adding fluoride last year, officials reported that St. Petersburg, which started fluoridating its city water in 1992, had seen a 40 percent decline in tooth decay among teenagers.
Fluoridation is recommended by the American Dental Association, the American Medical Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It has been added to water since the 1940s.
Despite protests by antifluoride activists who consider the chemical little less than poison, most dentists vouch for its safety.
Even in doses of less than one part per million (the amount Pinellas plans to add to its water), the compound works by making tooth enamel less porous and plaque less able to stick to teeth.
Absorption through the bloodstream even helps strengthen children’s teeth growing below the gum line.
“Exhaustive studies over the last 50 to 60 years all indicate this is a grand and glorious thing,” said Dr. Hugh Wunderlich, a Pinellas dentist who edits the monthly journal of the 6,800 member Florida Dental Association. “It’s become one more tool in our shed to prevent tooth decay.”
Even if Pasco began using fluoride, not every family would get a dose. About half of county households get water from private wells or private utilities. But that percentage continues to fall. Most of the newer neighborhoods belong to the county’s service area.
In the view of dentists such as Nelson, introducing even half the county to the tooth -saving benefits of fluoride is worthwhile.
“Dentists have always been prevention oriented. We want people to brush, floss and use fluoride,” Nelson said. “We’re not looking to increase our profession.”