BROOKSVILLE — In a last-minute budget decision two years ago, the Brooksville City Council voted 5-0 to stop putting fluoride into the city's water supply. The vote came without debate and with no publicity.
Now, county health officials say they want to appeal to the city to reverse its call and bring back the mineral additive, which most dentists and many health organizations say is an effective dental health tool.
"We were very discouraged to find out recently that fluoride was no longer being added to the Brooksville public water system," said Dr. Pedro Lense, senior dentist for the Hernando County Health Department. "Not only because of what it means to the health of Brooksville children, but also because there was no opportunity for the dental community to comment on the action before it went into effect."
The county Health Department's decision to lobby the city for a return of fluoridation is certain to reignite a prickly, decades-long debate over whether the practice provides a tangible benefit for fighting tooth decay or a toxic affront to a personal health choice. Both sides say their viewpoint is backed by scientific data.
Brooksville Mayor Lara Bradburn, an adamant opponent of fluoridation, said her stance against it has never wavered. And while she acknowledged that county health officials were able to successfully lobby council members to preserve the city's fluoridation program in 2008, she believes that a majority of residents no longer want it.
Citing studies by the U.S. Environmental Protection Scientists Union and the Food and Drug Administration, Bradburn said that reinstating a program with so many health risks simply goes against her convictions as an elected official.
"The City Council is under oath to protect our citizens by not putting toxic waste in our water," Bradburn said. "You would think that the Health Department would be up to date on its information. I would never vote in favor of it."
Bradburn isn't alone in her opinion. Neither Vice Mayor Kevin Hohn nor council member Joe Bernardini said they would likely support returning the chemical to the city's water supply.
"It's the personal choice question that concerns me," Bernardini said. "I'm not personally against fluoride, but some people are. Should we be forcing them to have it in their water even if they don't want it?"
Dr. Scott Tomar, a professor in the department of community dentistry and behavioral science at the University of Florida and vice president of the American Association of Public Health Dentistry, said that decades of studies on municipal fluoridation have failed to find any credibility in claims that the chemical is a health risk.
"The opposition is as old as fluoridation has been around," Tomar said. "But the truth is there's just no truth in any of them. If there were, then the government and health agencies that support fluoridation would have pulled their support long ago."
Fluoridation became an official policy of the U.S. Public Health Service during the early 1950s and was adopted by hundreds of municipalities eager to provide its benefits to citizens. Presently, about 73 percent of the U.S. population drinks fluoridated water. Through the years, the amount of fluoride recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency to treat drinking water has dropped by nearly half due to the advent of fluoride toothpastes, mouthwashes and other oral hygiene products.
The debate over fluoride was renewed recently in Pinellas County, when the County Commission voted to restore its fluoridation program after it had been discontinued in 2011.
Brooksville began adding fluoride to its water supply in 1985. Although a similar program was initially approved by the Hernando County Commission in 1990, it was abandoned after public complaints about possible health risks, and there is no fluoride currently added to the county's water supply.
Dr. William Holbrook, who has been practicing dentistry in Brooksville since 1978, said that he began seeing the benefits of fluoridation in his patients soon after the city adopted the measure.
"The number of cavities, especially in younger people, went down dramatically," Holbrook said. "To me, it was one of the smartest things the city ever did for its residents."
In 2008, Holbrook and Tomar were among a group of dental professionals and county health officials who appeared at a City Council budget workshop in an attempt to persuade council members not to discontinue the fluoridation program. Holbrook said he sees a tougher fight ahead in trying to convince city officials to reinstate fluoridation.
"It can be hard to get elected officials to see that the small cost for fluoridation is far less expensive than what it costs to treat unhealthy teeth, and that it's a service that more than pays for itself," Holbrook said.
The annual cost for Brooksville's program was about $6,000.
County health education program manager Ann-Gayl Ellis said that the subject of fluoridation will be incorporated in the department's Dental Health Month outreach initiatives in February.
In addition, she plans to share information on the value and cost-effectiveness of such programs with members of the City Council and County Commission.
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.