CLEARWATER — Pinellas County will stop adding fluoride to its drinking water, ending a cavity-fighting effort that riled critics of Big Brother government despite decades of advocacy by dental and medical experts.
After three hours of polarizing debate, the County Commission voted 4-3 Tuesday to halt fluoridation to about 700,000 residents of the county and most Pinellas cities.
Residents in St. Petersburg, Gulfport, Dunedin and Belleair will not be affected.
Public notices will go out this fall, and the practice will end shortly afterward.
The vote came despite pleas from a dozen dentists and health officials who told commissioners that fluoride reduces dental illness while lowering costs to the county for dental care for the needy.
Fluoridation costs the county about $205,000 a year.
Pinellas County began adding fluoride to its water in 2004. Before that, it was the largest water supplier in the eastern United States that did not fluoridate its water.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls the practice, which dates to the 1940s, one of the greatest public health achievements of the century. Federal and global agencies and medical groups say it is healthy with the right dosage, despite recent red flags.
"Fluoride is safe, efficient and cost-effective," said dentist Christopher Beach of the Pinellas County Health Department.
But critics seized on recent concerns about too much fluoride having side effects on young children and tea party-style fears of forced government medicating. Some speakers Tuesday compared it to Soviet and Nazi practices and warned of cancer, reduced IQ and deteriorating bones.
"Fluoride is a toxic substance," said tea party activist Tony Caso of Palm Harbor. "This is all part of an agenda that's being pushed forth by the so-called globalists in our government and the world government to keep the people stupid so they don't realize what's going on."
He added: "This is the U.S. of A, not the Soviet Socialist Republic."
Commissioner Ken Welch said afterward that he was embarrassed by the decision, calling it "a big step backward for Pinellas County." Karen Seel and Susan Latvala voted with Welch in favor of fluoridation.
St. Petersburg fluoridates its water along with Gulfport's, and Belleair and Dunedin use their own system. Tampa and Hillsborough County utilities also put fluoride in drinking water.
Officials with those utilities said Tuesday that they have no plans to end fluoridation, though Dunedin recently debated it.
Pasco County utilities does not fluoridate its water, mostly because of health worries.
The decision in Pinellas will make the county the least fluoridated among major Florida counties, with only about 25 percent of the population getting fluoridated water, Welch said, citing state health statistics. Nearly 70 percent of the state population has fluoridated water, the Florida Department of Health says.
"I think it's an extremely unfortunate decision by Pinellas County," University of Florida dental college professor Scott Tomar, a public health dentist since 1984, said in an interview. He noted there's "no basis" for fears of severe illness and warned dental problems could rise.
But Commissioner John Morroni, who supported starting the practice in 2004, joined Norm Roche, Neil Brickfield and Nancy Bostock in voting to stop the program.
Roche spearheaded the effort, calling it a "social sort of program" that the county should avoid. A former utility worker who was elected to the commission last year, he has opposed fluoridation from the start.
Morroni compared the practice to the disputed federal health care reform law mandating that people buy health insurance. Ultimately, he said, public support has shifted since he and other commissioners approved the practice.
"I don't think the county government should be telling people they have to have fluoride in the water," Morroni said.
There have been cautions lately, too.
In January, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services proposed reducing the recommended fluoride level to 0.7 milligrams per liter of water. The agency said it was based on recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and HHS scientific assessments to balance the benefits of preventing tooth decay while limiting unwanted health effects. The standard since 1962 has been a range of 0.7 to 1.2 milligrams per liter. Pinellas uses 0.8, adding to a smaller level of naturally occurring fluoride.
Those moves came after a reported increase in spots on children's teeth, attributed to too much fluoride. The CDC has also put out a warning: While using fluoridated water is safe, infants that consume formula exclusively with fluoridated water have an increased chance of fluorosis — faint white spots on teeth. To lessen that chance, the agency recommends using bottled water sometimes.
Hillsborough lowered the fluoride level to 0.7 milligrams per liter earlier this year.
"The public health officials advocate it," said Luke Mulford, Hillsborough's water quality engineer. "I defer to medical people on medical issues."
Pinellas dentists and officials said no study is yet available to document the effect of Pinellas' fluoride effort, though several dentists said tooth decay among young people is down.
"Over the last four years, it's been just an incredible change, an incredible change," said Palm Harbor dentist Oscar Menendez, president of the Upper Pinellas Dental Society.
Times staff writers Richard Danielson, Michael Van Sickler and Lee Logan contributed to this report. David DeCamp can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/decamptimes