PLANT CITY — For the last few months, politicians have stirred controversy as they considered halting water fluoridation in parts of Pinellas County.
But on this side of the bay, Plant City officials have quietly taken an opposite tack: By next fall, they say, fluoride will be added to drinking water for the first time.
"I felt that if we were going to do it, now would be the time to do it," said Plant City Mayor Dan Raulerson.
With a boost from a state grant that will cover start-up expenses, Plant City commissioners approved the project in June to install fluoridation systems in four city water plants. Not swayed by claims that fluoride is toxic or causes serious health conditions, Raulerson said this is a measure the city needs to strengthen residents' teeth and promote dental health.
Pumped-in chemicals will nearly double the fluoride levels that occur naturally in city water, from .4 milligrams per liter to closer to the state's optimal concentration of .8 milligrams per liter.
State health officials approached the city in November 2009 to discuss fluoridation. City officials presented a report in January 2010 but worried about costs.
The proposal gained approval this year after the city won a state health department grant that will pay the project's $368,000 estimated cost for all equipment and initial fluoride supplies.
With the bulk of the expenses taken care of, the city faces $15,000 to $20,000 yearly for chemicals, said utilities director Frank Coughenour, plus up to $10,000 for daily fluoride analysis.
Plant City officials mulled over the health initiative more than a decade ago but canceled plans under budget constraints.
"I always felt like we should have done that," said Plant City Commissioner Michael Sparkman, a leading proponent for fluoridating the city's water.
A lifelong Plant City resident, Sparkman noticed a Navy study during his military service that found recruits from areas with fluoridation had stronger teeth than others.
Now he said he hopes fluoridated water will result in healthier teeth for other generations of Plant City children and provide some benefits to families that can't afford adequate dental care.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention named fluoridation as one of the 10 greatest health achievements of the 20th century because of its effects in reducing dental decay.
"We like fluoridation," said Hillsborough County Health Department spokesman Steve Huard. "It's a positive addition to our water source, and it provides a benefit to our community."
Though Florida doesn't mandate fluoridation, both the city of Tampa and Hillsborough County put added amounts of fluoride in drinking water.
Last week, Pinellas County commissioners confirmed a vote to stop fluoridating water in some areas by the year's end. Last month, the city of Dunedin considered eliminating fluoride to cut costs.
Critics say excess fluoride can be poisonous or result in brain damage. Organizations such as the Fluoride Action Network point to possible connections between fluoridation and types of bone and kidney diseases.
Plant City officials say they don't recall any opposition to their decision to fluoridate. Nor, they say, have they heard any concerns in the months following.
Raulerson said the city always has the option to stop fluoridating if the commissioners feel there's substantial, peer-reviewed science that indicates it poses serious health dangers.
"I certainly am open to hearing the debate or seeing the evidence," he said. "And it's our responsibility to do that."
Stephanie Wang can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2443.