DUNEDIN — The City Commission voted Tuesday to keep fluoride in the public water supply, siding with widespread scientific consensus and rejecting critics who have protested the mineral as illegal toxic waste.
Commissioners voted 3-2 in support of the public health additive, splitting with Pinellas County commissioners who last month voted to end fluoridation for 700,000 residents after a clanging of vocal dissent.
Though Dunedin's vote will affect a much smaller contingency — the 30,000 residents on city taps — it lends a larger victory to the dentists and health professionals who have spoken for decades in fluoride's defense.
"In the name of science and public health, my arguments are on the side of safety," said Vice Mayor Ron Barnette. "We've heard a lot of rhetoric. And this rhetoric is not based on science."
Commissioners didn't get there without a fight. Speaking for two hours, two dozen residents derided fluoride as a poison that could lead to cancer and mental retardation. One Tarpon Springs resident who had earlier warned of a lawsuit, Chris Hrabovsky, said loudly as he left City Hall, "I'll see you in court."
In their dissenting votes, Mayor Dave Eggers and commissioner Julie Ward Bujalski said residents should be able to choose whether they want fluoride in their tap water, a response to opponents' arguments that public fluoridation was government-forced "mass medicating."
"Everything in my body wants to say … I want the choice," Bujalski said. "I want to be able to choose what I do and what I drink."
Nine supporters, including practicing and retired dentists and leaders of a low-income community dental outreach, vouched for fluoride as a safe and effective tool to prevent cavities and tooth decay.
"There is no science that opposes this," said Ed Hopwood, a dentist and associate professor of dentistry at the University of Florida. "This is nothing to be scared of."
But they were largely outnumbered by opponents who called fluoride a secretive poison that residents were powerless to resist. Resident Felicity Coddington, who blamed fluoride for spots on her teeth, said the water smelled like rat poison. She received a round of applause.
When one supporter said fluoride was backed by the scientific community, someone in the crowd said loudly: "So was bloodletting."
Amid this summer's budget talks, city officials said cutting fluoride would save about $16,000 a year and cancel the $50,000 replacement of an aging fluoride tank. A public workshop in September drew crowds of fluoride detractors and one supporter, a dentist, who was booed.
Dunedin in 1992 followed the town of Belleair to become the second Pinellas municipality to fluoridate its water, rejecting opponents who said fluoride contributed to wrinkles and AIDS.
St. Petersburg, Gulfport and Belleair continue to fluoridate their water supplies. Pinellas County's reversal takes effect at the end of the year.
Dunedin has long been a pioneer for public water. Drawing from an expansive well field, Dunedin relies solely on water pumped from within city limits. In 1999, the prime minister of Singapore and a contingent of U.S. Secret Service agents visited Dunedin's reverse-osmosis water plant, one of the earliest in the world.
Nearly three-quarters of Americans using public utilities drink from fluoridated water supplies.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls water fluoridation one of the last century's greatest public-health successes, and the American Dental Association estimates every public dollar spent on fluoride equals $38 in saved dental-treatment costs.
Public health experts say the typical level of fluoride provided in public water — less than a milligram per liter — is far below the excessive intake that can lead to health problems.
But the crush of scientific consensus has not kept critics from slamming it as government drugging or a high-level dental-industry conspiracy. Some falsely claim its use in water began with the Nazis during World War II.
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or firstname.lastname@example.org.