CLEARWATER – Most Pinellas County residents can expect something new in the water today.
That’s when the county begins adding fluoride to its water supply, ending decades of resistance against one of the most recognized trends in preventing tooth decay.
Commissioners voted 6-1 in August in favor of fluoridating water that serves more than 600,000 county residents. That decision meant Pinellas County would no longer hold the claim of being the largest water supplier in the eastern United States that does not fluoridate its water supply.
But the debate is hardly finished. A small but determined group of opponents continues pressing commissioners to reconsider. They say hydrofluorosilicic acid – the type of fluoride the county intends to add – is harmful, particularly to children. They want the county to produce a study proving it is safe.
Nearly 150 people showed up at a commission meeting last month to protest the board’s decision. They continue sending letters and e-mails almost every day. A few have sat down with county commissioners and made their argument.
“I feel like it is our government’s responsibility to make our water clean, safe and potable,” said Cathy Corry, a Clearwater resident who also acts as a local advocate for families dealing with the juvenile justice system. “Beyond that, I don’t think they have a right to put anything else in it.”
Pinellas provides water to most residents of unincorporated areas, along with residents of Largo, Seminole and the beach communities. It also sells bulk water to Safety Harbor, Clearwater, Tarpon Springs, Pinellas Park and Oldsmar.
St. Petersburg, Dunedin, Gulfport and Belleair already add fluoride to their water supplies.
Pinellas County Chairwoman Susan Latvala said she’s comfortable with the board’s decision. But she said she is concerned by the growing number of people who are “terrified.”
So Latvala said the county has decided to send a sample of the hydrofluorosilicic acid to an independent laboratory for testing. She also has asked staff to review some of the research supplied by the opponents.
“I believe that some of this information is not true, just not true,” Latvala said. “Because it is on the Internet doesn’t make it so. Because someone tells you something, it does not make it so. There has to be scientific research to back it up.
“We are going to try and dispel that,” she said. “Now if we can’t, whoa. That would force us to reconsider.”
Peter Glickman, a Largo resident, questions the county’s research. The president of Citizens for Safe Water, an antifluoride group, said he’s willing to debate anyone on the subject and has a briefcase filled with studies, e-mails and letters that he said support the case against fluoridation.
Glickman said he has asked Pinellas County Health Department officials for peer-reviewed research studies on hydrofluorosilicic acid. He said they have not been able to supply any. He said they are relying on old data that studied a different fluoride compound.
“There’s a lot of explanations,” Glickman said. “There’s a lot of opinions. But no peer-reviewed studies.”
Dr. John Heilman, director of the county Health Department, recommended fluoridating water last year. He could not be reached for comment last week. A woman answering the phone at his office said he was on vacation.
The American Medical Association, the American Dental Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend adding fluoride to water.
The CDC has called fluoridation one of the nation’s top 10 “public health achievements” during the 20th century.
“That type of fluoridation is widely used,” said Karen Hunter, a spokeswoman for the CDC in Atlanta. “It is one of more common forms of fluoridation.”
However, Hunter said the CDC has not studied hydrofluorosilicic acid. Neither has has the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Scientists for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry have looked at other fluoride compounds, said spokeswoman Jennifer Sarginson.
While small amounts of fluoride help prevent tooth cavities, high levels can be harmful, according to fluoride fact sheets put together by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. In adults, exposure to high levels of fluoride can result in denser bones. However, if exposure is high enough, these bones may become brittle, with a greater risk of breaking.
Sarginson said a local county engineer would be the best person to determine what compound is best suited for the drinking water.
County officials said the amount of fluoride they intend to add will match what St. Petersburg adds and is well below the maximum set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
By adding fluoride, Pinellas joins communities serving more than 162-million people nationwide. In the bay area, Tampa and Hillsborough County also fluoridate their water.
“When you have all these national associations saying that this is safe and appropriate, I have some confidence,” Latvala said. “I have to have some confidence in those organizations.”
– Michael Sandler can be reached at 727 445-4162 or firstname.lastname@example.org