DUNEDIN — Applause, passionate outbursts and several rounds of booing marked a workshop Thursday in which the public and the City Commission discussed whether to eliminate fluoride from the city's water supply.
The issue came to light recently when Dunedin officials asked city departments to find ways to cut costs in fiscal year 2012.
Dunedin's annual fluoridation costs have increased from $2,000 in 2005 to about $16,800 last year, or about 48 cents annually per resident, according to a report by the city's assistant utilities director. If the city stops fluoridating its water, it can save those annual chemical and testing costs and also avoid spending $50,000 to replace the city's aging fluoride storage tank.
About 18 of the roughly 35 people who gathered in City Hall chambers Thursday took to the lectern to urge the city to eliminate fluoride, eliciting thunderous rounds of applause.
Only one person, a local dentist, spoke in support of keeping fluoride in Dunedin's water. He was booed.
After two hours on the topic, commissioners said they were "torn" and wanted to hear more information before deciding whether to vote at a formal meeting or to send the issue to a voter referendum in November 2012. They told City Manager Rob DiSpirito to schedule another workshop, this time for an evening when more residents could attend.
"I want to hear from others in the community who haven't had their voice heard," Mayor Dave Eggers said. "I think the more we talk about it, the more we learn."
The topic is one that has raged nationwide for more than five decades.
In 1992, Dunedin became the second Pinellas County city to fluoridate its water after commissioners accepted a federal grant that paid for installing equipment at the city's new water plant and a two-year supply of fluoride.
The decision followed public hearings that drew supporters and critics.
Twenty years later, Dunedin — whose water contains .2 milligrams per liter of naturally-occurring fluoride — continues to add chemicals to raise the level to the .7 mg per liter recommended by the federal government, said assistant utilities director Paul Stanek.
Derwood Janssen, a Dunedin resident who said he practiced dentistry for 51 years, detailed how scientists decades ago discovered that children living in areas of with higher concentrations of fluoride, which hardens tooth enamel, had less tooth decay.
"Toothpaste is topical but doesn't improve the intrinsic structure of the enamel," he said. "Wouldn't it be better to spend 50 cents a year (on fluoridated water) to make sure your or your children's teeth will be stronger?"
He was outnumbered by speakers, including dentists and nurse practitioners, who talked about the ill effects of over-fluoridation on teeth and overall health, especially among children and the elderly. The federal government recently lowered its water fluoridation recommendation level partly because, unlike 50 years ago, fluoride today is available from hundreds of sources, including food, mouthwash and toothpaste.
However, the most frequent complaint from the public was that fluoride, a by-product of the phosphate industry, is a "poison" or "drug" that the government has no place forcing on taxpayers.
"Until this was brought up, I'm really disturbed that I didn't have the choice to give (her 2-year-old daughter) fluoride," said local artist Anna Hamilton.
For now, commissioners have asked staff and a citizen advisory group to do further research.
Vice Mayor Ron Barnette said he wants information from jurisdictions that are considering eliminating fluoride from their water.
Commissioner David Carson, who grew up with fluoridated water, said he felt comfortable with science that touts fluoride as safe, but felt uncomfortable "forcing this down people's throats, literally." He suggested sending the question to voters.
Commissioner Julie Ward Bujalski said it appears environmental changes over the last 50 years have changed citizens' fluoride needs. She said the decision over fluoride isn't about money, but about choice.
"My role is, I think, do I give the choice to the citizens or not," Bujalski said. "I don't think it's my place to take choice away. ... I think that's what our Constitution and country is based on."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4153.