Those who oppose Pinellas County’s recent fluoridation of public drinking water are asking a reasonable question: Is it safe?

Some of those asking the question are convinced already that virtually any chemical added to drinking water is a bad idea. Others are not so dug in, but may be alarmed by the recent revelation that the form of fluoride being added to Pinellas’ drinking water is hydrofluorosilicic acid, a byproduct of phosphate processing.

Some Pinellas residents have formed a group, Citizens for Safe Water, to fight fluoridation of the county water supply, which began June 7. This group has disseminated its own information, claiming there is little or no research proving that hydrofluorosilicic acid is safe for human consumption and further alleging that some researchers have linked fluoride to a variety of ailments from stained teeth to bone cancer. The group also is flying in two national “experts” opposed to water fluoridation to speak at a Citizens for Safe Water-sponsored public forum in Clearwater tonight.

County officials have been caught flat-footed by the new opposition to fluoridation and, specifically, by the questions about hydrofluorosilicic acid. At the urging of public health authorities and local dental groups, the Pinellas County Commission voted last year to fluoridate the drinking water starting this year, but commissioners knew nothing then about the substance that would be used. In recent weeks, county officials have had to admit they could not put their hands on any research about the substance’s impact on human health, and they declined to send a spokesperson to the forum in Clearwater tonight to defend its use.

County officials don’t need to feel compelled to participate in an opposition group’s privately organized forum. However, they are obligated to provide informed answers to residents’ reasonable questions, and soon.

Most water supplies in the United States have trace amounts of naturally occurring fluoride. Water systems began supplementing that amount in the 1940s after the discovery that consuming a small quantity of fluoride reduced tooth decay. Today, more than 65 percent of the U.S. population that receives public water gets fluoridated water, and three-quarters of those water systems use hydrofluorosilicic acid. Some have used that substance since the early 1980s.

After decades of experience and study of fluoridation, most health authorities say properly regulated fluoridated drinking water is not a danger to anyone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hails fluoridation as one of the greatest public health achievements of the 20th century, and many medical organizations such as the American Medical Association and American Dental Association wholeheartedly promote its use.

Yet some residents of Pinellas County want more assurances that their water is safe, and they want more details about hydrofluorosilicic acid. Pinellas County officials owe them that information.