CLEARWATER — Pinellas County Commissioner John Morroni thrust himself into a political storm as the swing vote against adding fluoride to drinking water.
He was lampooned as wrong-headed and conspiracy-addled. He was lauded as conservative and brave. A dozen people he knew urged him to reconsider.
But 95 critical e-mails vs. 119 supportive ones over a week failed to change Morroni's mind — leading the commission Tuesday to stick with last week's 4-3 vote to quit adding fluoride to county water by year's end.
"I decided the vote I'd taken was where I was at in my heart," Morroni said, citing unease with "overly intrusive" government and decrying complaints he fell to "conspiracy theories."
Dozens of supporters and opponents pressed the board in tense debate over last week's decision, which brought national attention to Pinellas and reversed a 6-1 vote in 2003. Morroni voted yes then.
"We are going to the backwoods of urban counties with this move," Commissioner Ken Welch said.
Dentists and pediatricians pleaded with the commission to reconsider. Most dental and medical groups back adding fluoride, showing research that it's safe and fights cavities.
Though recommended levels have dropped, recent U.S. surgeons general back it. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention label fluoridation — which originated in the 1940s — as one of the best achievements of the past century.
"When we look at good science and not the junk on the Internet … water fluoridation does reduce the rate of decay," said University of Florida professor Elizabeth Lense, representing the Florida Dental Association.
But decades of skeptics question its health value, and they came out again Tuesday, warning of class-action lawsuits and poison based on research that health officials rebuke.
One woman blamed fluoride in her drinking water for making her overweight, causing dentists to shrug. Another woman handed all seven commissioners a book: The Fluoride Deception.
Commissioner Norm Roche, a longtime opponent, said differing opinions from dentists and doctors led him to question the safety of adding fluoride.
But supportive health and dental officials surpassed critical ones in front of the commission.
"It had to be 20-to-1," Welch said.
Roche decried "misinformation" and "overhyping" by the media and the St. Petersburg Times, such as warnings from medical and dental groups of future dental and health problems. He scoffed at a warning from a county staffer about tarnishing Pinellas' tourism image.
In a tangle with Welch, Roche even compared adding fluoride to dropping psychotropic drugs Ritalin and Prozac in the water. Welch called it "offensive."
Over the next 60 days, the county will notify customers and cities receiving its water that fluoride won't be added. About 700,000 people are affected. Commissioner Karen Seel called the change "troubling" for its health costs in ending a $200,000 annual program.
But Welch said the debate isn't over. "I think the next election will likely be a referendum on this commission," he said.
David DeCamp can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/decamptimes.