TARPON SPRINGS — Now that this city is finally ready to build its own water treatment plant, officials must decide a controversial question: Should Tarpon add fluoride to its tap water?
The City Commission will discuss the question Tuesday night, and officials expect a crowd of people to come to City Hall to express their opinions. Several dentists will speak on behalf of fluoridation, and there will also be people opposed to it.
"It's a contentious issue," City Manager Mark LeCouris recently told commissioners. "The main question you'll wrestle with is: Is it the role of the government to do that or not?"
And so Tarpon Springs becomes the latest local government to grapple with the fluoride issue.
Pinellas County, which currently supplies most of Tarpon Springs' drinking water, decided last year to stop adding fluoride to its water, triggering polarized reactions both locally and nationally.
Most health organizations support fluoridation for dental health, but opponents call it poison and government-forced medication.
More recently, Dunedin, Pinellas Park and Plant City have gone in the opposite direction, deciding to keep fluoride in their public water supply.
Tarpon Springs water
Tarpon Springs has long planned to build its own water plant so it can save money and become water-independent. It draws 20 percent of its tap water from city-owned well fields, but it has to buy the remaining 80 percent from Pinellas County, which is more expensive.
In 2006, Tarpon residents voted in a referendum to build a reverse osmosis water treatment plant. It will produce drinking water by pushing brackish, or salty, water through special filtering membranes. The brackish water will be pumped from deep wells north of the Anclote River.
The $45 million plant has been designed, but it hasn't been built yet. A legal challenge from Tarpon Springs resident Henry Ross put the project on hold. His case was recently dismissed by an appeals court, so the city is getting ready to start construction.
The plant wasn't designed for adding fluoride to the water, because some past city commissioners were opposed to that, LeCouris said. They made that decision in 2008. At the time, barely anyone noticed.
"It wasn't really a big discussion," recalled LeCouris, who was Tarpon's police chief at the time. "I don't remember much fanfare."
Peter Dalacos was one of the commissioners opposed to fluoridation.
"We made sure we didn't put stuff in the water that absolutely, positively didn't need to be in there," said Dalacos, who has since left office due to term limits. "Why spend $45 million on a plant to make this brackish water as pure as possible, then turn around and start putting pollutants in it?"
However, LeCouris said it would be relatively easy and inexpensive to adjust the water plant's design to allow for fluoridation.
That's what Commissioner Jeff Larsen wants to do. Elected in 2010, he was surprised to learn that Tarpon isn't planning to add fluoride to its tap water. He was the one who called for Tuesday's discussion.
"I think fluoridation is an important issue," Larsen said. "I'm very much moved by the fact that the Centers for Disease Control and the American Dental Association are in favor of it. I think we should make our decisions based on science."
No one has a good handle on how the five commissioners will vote Tuesday night.
"I really haven't made up my mind as to whether we need fluoridation or not," said Mayor David Archie.
The city has set up a web page with information about the debate. Residents can go to the city's website at ctsfl.us and click on "fluoridation."
At Tuesday's meeting, commissioners expect to hear plenty of arguments for and against.
Dentists vouch for fluoride as a safe and effective tool to prevent cavities and tooth decay. Opponents call it government-enforced mass medicating, an intrusion that residents are powerless to resist.
Nearly three-quarters of Americans using public utilities drink from fluoridated water supplies.
St. Petersburg, Dunedin, Pinellas Park, Gulfport and Belleair continue to fluoridate their tap water. So do Tampa and Hillsborough County, although Pasco County doesn't. Pinellas County stopped the practice at the end of last year, affecting 700,000 residents.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151. Send letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.