For the first time in more than 10 years, the Hernando County Commission is about to seriously debate whether fluoride should be added to the county’s water system.
It’s about time.
More than 90 percent of Americans already drink fluoridated water, a naturally occurring chemical that has proved extremely effective in combating tooth decay. Florida has been woefully behind the times on this 50-year-old practice, joining public transportation, recycling, preventive medicine, education spending and a host of other progressive issues that would make our corner of the world a better place if we had the foresight and will to implement them.
Yet, even in slow-to-react Florida, more than 200 communities now add fluoride to the water, 116 of them public utilities.
The Hernando County Utility Department serves almost 45,000 of the county’s approximately 120,000 residents. The remaining two-thirds draw from private wells, or are served by Florida Water Services, which also does not fluoridate the water it treats for most west-county residents.
There is no doubt fluoride is an effective way to help people avoid costly, painful dental problems. Every credible medical association in America has endorsed the use of fluoride in public drinking water supplies as a safe, useful tool to fight tooth decay. That list of scientific organizations includes the American Medical Association, the American Dental Association, the Centers for Disease Control, the National Cancer Institute, the U.S. Public Health Service and the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office.
According to those learned souls, fluoride reduces tooth decay by about 70 percent, greatly benefiting the developing teeth of young people. But fluoride also helps older people by protecting against cavities that, as gums recede, attack the exposed roots. They estimate that every $1 spent on fluoridating water, at an infinitesimal ratio of one part fluoride per 1-million parts water, saves $50 in dentist bills.
Despite those sensible and reliable arguments, fluoride has been the victim of persistent rumors that it is either harmful or unnecessary, depending on which conspiracy theory you believe. Most, if not all, appear to be radical assertions proffered by a fringe of pseudo-scientists. In fact, an unsubstantiated allegation that fluoride causes bone cancer is primarily responsible for derailing the County Commission’s 1989 decision to implement it here.
With any luck, that sort of hearsay nonsense will not become a central part of the debate this time.
Instead, it appears there may be another culprit standing in the way of a sound public health practice: Money.
Even before the discussion really begins, County Utilities Department director Kay Adams already is recommending the commission reject the idea because it is too costly and, she believes, wasteful. Adams predicts the start-up costs for fluoridating the county’s water supplies will be $350,000, plus about $125,000 every year subsequent to those initial costs. The state probably would pay about $50,000 of the initial cost, Adams says.
We expect our public servants to be very conscious about how they spend the money we give them. But the cost Adams has quoted is not exorbitant, considering the process has done more than any other single agent to extend the longevity of Americans’ teeth.
How do you put a price on that?
The commissioners should find out what their constituents think. As they do, they should not be sidetracked from the core issue, which is the public’s health, not its pocketbook.