STUART — Six months ago, Jensen Beach engineer Pat Arena was running a one-man campaign opposed to Martin County’s plans to begin fluoridating the drinking water it serves to 28,000 customers.
Nobody was paying attention.
But this squeaky wheel may be getting some grease. Three of the five Martin County commissioners now say they plan to vote next month against fluoridation, and Arena is trying to persuade other Treasure Coast communities to follow suit.
“I was the only one talking about fluoride for like six straight weeks,” Arena said. “After about the fourth or fifth time, people started listening to me and they started saying, ‘I don’t want it, either.'”
An oral-health task force the county organized in 2002 recommended fluoridation because scientific studies have suggested that fluoride can strengthen teeth and prevent tooth decay. The American Dental Association, federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other major medical organizations endorse fluoridation.
Commissioners voted 4-1 in 2003 to fluoridate drinking water provided by its utility.
The county has spent more than $201,000 building a fluoridation system and is ready to start implementing it early next year, said County Utilities Director John Polley.
But Arena has cited scientific studies that suggest fluoride can harm infants because the amounts cannot be regulated properly, and it can cause bone, tooth and thyroid problems in adults. After hearing those concerns, commissioners decided to vote again Dec. 19.
Commissioner Lee Weberman, who originally voted for fluoridation, said Tuesday he had switched his position.
“No one has demonstrated a need in Martin County,” Weberman said. “Philosophically, I don’t know that I want to be regulating medical treatment for people.”
Weberman joins Chairman Susan Valliere, who voted against fluoridation in 2003 and continues to oppose it, and Commissioner Sarah Heard, who voted for it before but now says she opposes it.
“I think there is a whole lot of new information and I have some great concerns,” Heard said.
Polley said that, if the county does not fluoridate, it probably would have to give back $129,000 in state grant money it used to build the system.
Sharon Kinane, a member of the task force that recommended that the county fluoridate its water, said her group will show on Dec. 19 that fluoride is safe.
“I’m really disappointed to hear that he (Weberman) would make such a statement before we’ve had a chance to provide all the information,” Kinane said.
Expanding his anti-fluoride efforts, Arena has asked Port St. Lucie and Stuart city councils to stop fluoridating and plans to meet each council member individually.
Port St. Lucie has fluoridated its water since 1995.
Councilwoman Michelle Berger said the city council probably will discuss whether to continue at its January retreat.
“I want to make sure we are doing well by all children in the city,” Berger said.
Stuart plans to start adding fluoride next year.
But Stuart City Councilman Jeffrey Krauskopf said he supports Arena and hopes the city council changes its mind.
“I told him I don’t want it and I hope he finds two more votes,” Krauskopf said. “If you want fluoride, go to Walgreens and buy it. Don’t put it in the water.”
Stuart City Councilman Jim Christie said he also has some concerns and wants the council to discuss the issue further.
St. Lucie County officials said they have no plans to stop fluoridating, and Palm Beach County commissioners voted earlier this year to continue fluoridating.
Government bodies as far away as New Zealand have debated whether to fluoridate their water this year and residents in the northern California town of Arcata voted against (sic) fluoridating their water by a wide margin last week.
Kinane said the opposition to fluoride baffles her.
“To me it’s a slam-dunk, like penicillin. It’s good for you and if you take the right amount it won’t hurt you,” Kinane said. “Why it continues to be any point of controversy for people I don’t understand.”