CLEARWATER — For the past several years, Clearwater residents have been drinking water with fluoride levels lower than what is widely accepted to be optimal by dental professionals.
But in a sudden burst of urgency Monday, the City Council voted to accelerate its plans to add fluoride to the water supply that will meet recommended concentrations.
Utilities director David Porter said the city had always planned to launch a fluoride program but decided a decade ago to wait until 2019, when all three water-treatment facilities would be fully operational and the city would be totally weaned off Pinellas County water.
But the consequence has been water lacking in fluoride as the city gradually lessens its dependence on water from the county, which first began adding fluoride in 2004. The majority of Clearwater's daily supply today is pulled through city wells without fluoride added, but about 20 percent still comes from the county.
Dental professionals overwhelmingly agree a 0.7-parts-per-million fluoride concentration is the optimal level to prevent cavities and tooth decay. Samples taken Jan. 25 show fluoride concentrations in Clearwater tested at 0.18, 0.02, and 0.50 parts per million at the three water-treatment facilities, respectively.
In February 2014, when the second water-treatment plant was offline for enhancements, levels were at 0.27 at the first plant and 0.42 at the third, the only plant that receives county water.
Faucets across Clearwater can be getting any combination of water from the city's three water-treatment plants and county supply because the sources are interconnected into a looped system, Porter said.
The original idea was to add the fluoride injectors at all three plants in 2019 so levels would be consistent for all residents. It was also based on cost savings: Porter said it would have been too costly to pay for the design, permitting, bid process and construction three times since enhancements at the first two treatment plants were completed at different times last year and construction on the third plant won't be completed until 2019.
Estimates released Monday show it will cost $1.94 million to construct the fluoride systems at the city's two completed water-treatment plants, compared with $1.83 million if officials waited until all were completed in 2019.
Council member Bill Jonson said he only recently learned fluoride levels were below optimal, and he pushed the city staff and his colleagues on the council to rethink the schedule.
"I've got grandkids that are growing teeth," Jonson said.
Even with the vote to accelerate the schedule, Clearwater's fluoride system won't be in operation for at least 22 months, in 2018 — only seven months sooner than the original plan. Porter said the process requires permitting from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which can take a year, before lengthy construction can start.
Still, any acceleration is a benefit, said Dr. Johnny Johnson, president of the American Fluoridation Society, who practiced dentistry for 30 years in Palm Harbor.
Dental problems can occur as early as 3 years old without proper fluoride exposure, he said. Studies embraced by the American Dental Association also show fluoride can reduce dental decay by up to 40 percent.
"I was not aware Clearwater did not have optimally fluoridated water until Mr. Jonson came forward and brought it to my attention," Johnson said. "I mean, how often do you read the water-quality report?"
The council voted 4-1 on the change, with newly elected member Bob Cundiff in opposition.
Cundiff said after the meeting that he doubts the science behind fluoride benefits and would like the issue to be decided by voters through a referendum.
"You can do a Google search and find at least 50 reasons why you should not fluoridate your water," Cundiff said. "All I was asking for today was a fair hearing on the issues. I think there's enough science out there to make me pause."
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.