PINELLAS PARK – After hearing arguments from both sides Jan. 24, the Pinellas Park City Council unanimously agreed that fluoride should be added back to city water.

The city will be applying for state funding to help cover the capital expenditure and could begin building the new infrastructure at its water pumping stations in July. Once new storage tanks and other equipment are installed, annual personnel and maintenance costs would work out to about $1.40 per resident, Public Utilities Director Keith Sabiel said.

The council’s decision to go forward with the plan came out of the informal setting of a workshop, attended only by a small audience. Mayor Bill Mischler asked for both proponents and opponents of the fluoride debate to present their case before the council weighed in on the issue.

“A decision is going to have to be forthcoming,” he said.

Many of those who spoke also had argued their viewpoint in front of county commissioners, who voted 4-3 to stop adding fluoride to the water as of Jan. 1. Pinellas Park, which buys wholesale water from the county, was affected by that decision.

“If the county hadn’t canceled this program, we wouldn’t be here tonight,” Councilman Ed Taylor commented.

In general, the dental community had advocated the presence of fluoride in the public water supply, arguing that the chemical makes teeth more resistant to decay, resulting in fewer cavities.

Dick Tomlin, who has been a dentist in Pinellas Park for 42 years, said fluoride accounted for a “direct improvement” in his patients’ teeth.

“I have seen a lot of changes in over three generations of patients,” he said. “There’s no question in our minds … we have seen a dramatic decrease in the decay in the kids we see. That’s all we’re after.”

Dr. Haychell Saraydar, senior dentist for the Pinellas County Health Department, also spoke in favor of fluoride implementation.

“For lower socioeconomic communities, it’s the best thing you can do in protecting them with preventative care,” she said. “It’s a service to the community.”

Opponents, however argue that fluoride can be harmful. Tom Nocera of Clearwater called dental fluorosis – a condition due to overexposure to fluoride during tooth development characterized by white spots or streaks on the teeth – a “disfiguring condition.” He also said that fluoride could interfere with endocrine levels in the body and could affect those with impaired kidneys, thyroid conditions or an allergy to fluoride.

“You can’t be helping poor kids at the expense of other segments of the population,” he said.

Johnny Johnson, a pediatric dentist in Palm Harbor, said that no peer-reviewed, scientifically based study has identified any health problems with fluoride, adding that the American Cancer Society, the American Medical Society and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have all studied the issue.

“These things have been looked at with thousands and thousands of studies over the years,” he said.

Kurt Irmischer, president of the local Citizens for Safe Drinking Water, took issue with that statement.

“When they say there’s no scientific studies, that is 100 percent incorrect. I will show you the studies,” he said.

He called the dental fluorosis “fluoride poisoning” and also argued that the county didn’t decide to stop fluoride implementation because of the fear of lawsuits.

“It was based on science, not based on fear,” he said.

After about an hour of hearing all the arguments, Mischler asked council members if they wanted staff to pursue the new fluoride system.

“I can go with it,” Taylor said.

The rest of the council agreed.

Saraydar looked relieved after the meeting.

“This is the best thing that has happened this year,” she said. “It makes my job a lot easier.”

Implementation and cost

After the county commission’s decision in October, Pinellas Park City Manager Michael Gustafson directed water division staff to research if it were possible to add fluoride to the water at the city level. The short answer was ‘yes,’ Sabiel said

The fluoride mixture to be added to the water would be kept in bulk storage tanks outside the city’s two pump stations at 7301 Belcher Road and 7650 Bryan Dairy Road, he said. The mixture would be pumped into a 100-gallon tank inside the building, where it could be tested and the proper amounts injected into the underground water main.

The city would maintain fluoride levels in the water at 0.7 parts per million, Sabiel said.

A full-time employee would travel between both stations, which are about a mile and a half apart. The city is required to have personnel monitoring the system full time Monday through Friday and perform a site inspection on holidays and weekends. The city also can monitor the facility electronically, Sabiel said.

The infrastructure changes at both stations would cost an estimated $108,750, which the city would pay for from its capital budget, Sabiel said. Council also directed staff to pursue funding from the Florida Department of Health.

“We would not know if our project was selected until July,” Sabiel added.

That delay would mean the city wouldn’t start adding fluoride to the water until much later this year. Installing the new infrastructure would take about three to four months, Sabiel said, estimating that Pinellas Park residents could have fluoride in their water by October.

The city would apply for funding within the next six weeks, Public Works Administrator Tom Nicholls said.

Annually, the city would have to maintain the full-time employee at the estimated cost of $42,200 and pay about $9,200 in overtime costs to monitor the system on the weekend and holidays. The chemicals themselves would cost an estimated $12,000 a year. Along with fuel and laboratory sampling expenses, the city would pay an estimated $70,500 in annual costs to add in the fluoride, according to city documentation.

The city manager would have to decide whether an existing employee would cover the fulltime position or if the city would hire someone new, Nicholls said.