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Fluoridation has 60-year history of being a touchy subject in Pinellas County

During the heyday of the Cold War, the idea of adding fluoride to drinking water provoked complaints of poisoning and worse, a communist plot.

Decades after the Berlin Wall came down, critics echoed the same arguments, right down to the Soviets, in persuading the Pinellas County Commission to vote Tuesday to stop using the cavity-fighting substance.

It rekindled 60 years of fluoride fights in the Tampa Bay area.

Debates in other major governments that add fluoride — St. Petersburg, Tampa and Hillsborough — ended almost 20 years ago.

U.S. medical and dental groups and public health agencies advocate using fluoride, particularly because of the cost-effective benefits it provides poor children. The cost to Pinellas is about a quarter a person a year, utility officials say.

But it's never been that simple in Pinellas. In 2004 the county was the last major system to add fluoridation in the eastern United States.

And with last week's 4-3 vote, it joined a scattered list of U.S. communities that have recently decided to stop it.

Over the years, fears have included cancer, AIDS, damaged plumbing and — consistently — government intrusion.

"Unfortunately, as long as there has been fluoridation, there's been a small but vocal group that opposed it," said Scott Tomar, a professor in dental public health at the University of Florida.

Fluoridation of public drinking water began after World War II, Scientists noticed less tooth decay among people where water had naturally high fluoride.

In 1945, Grand Rapids, Mich., became the first city to mix it in the water. Cavities among school children dropped about 50 percent faster than in nearby Muskegon, which did not fluoridate.

Other communities followed, and now more than 70 percent of Americans on public systems get fluoridated water.

But more recent studies of fluoridation's benefits are less dramatic and recommended levels in drinking water have dropped. Nutrition has improved and toothpaste comes with fluoride. People who can afford it are getting better dental care.

Many European countries with governments that spend more on health care don't fluoridate.

A few American cities have reversed course, including Mt. Clemens, Mich., which began fluoridating in 1951. The fliers around town this year: "There is a poison in the tap water."

Over the past half century, Pinellas officials literally avoided the debate as they tried to keep up with growth that stressed utilities.

"I think it was one of these out of sight, out of mind mentalities," said Fred Marquis, county administrator from 1979 to 2000.

In 1977, Pick Talley, then the water system director, proposed studying fluoride. Commissioners shot it down as too hot to handle.

"I know that fluoridation and a dog-leash law are the most politically inflammatory things anyone can propose," said then-Commissioner Don Jones.

No one's fighting the leash law these days.

St. Petersburg had started using fluoride in 1955, then dropped it two years later after protests. Referendums in 1959 and 1973 failed.

In 1990, the City Council decided to approve fluoride's use and skip a referendum. The practice began there in 1993.

But county commissioners still avoided the issue. In 1997, the board refused to act because some cities that receive water from the county weren't interested. Former Commissioner Sallie Parks said Friday there was "no political traction."

Neither were most commissioners looking to create any.

"They wanted to placate the vocal minorities,'' Talley said last week. "It's a very vocal well-organized opposition that was relentless."

But by 2003, the board had expanded from five to seven members. With the county spending more on indigent health care, Commissioner Susan Latvala said she and others pressed for adding fluoride.

The fluoride passed with a 6-1 vote — including support from Commissioner John Morroni, who voted against it last week. The only opponent was then-Commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd, who echoed questions about fluoride being a toxin.

On Tuesday, the commission will discuss the utility staff's plan to shut off fluoride Dec. 31. But Parks is hoping for a do-over.

"If I were Commissioner John Morroni," she said, "I think I would plead temporary insanity and make a motion to bring it up and reconsider it again."

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Material from Times files and the Detroit Free Press was used in this report. David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/decamptimes

>>FAST FACTS

Pinellas County Commission meeting

What: Discussion on the timing to shut down fluoridation of drinking water

When: 9:30 a.m. Tuesday

Where: 315 Court St., Clearwater

Fluoridation has 60-year history of being a touchy subject in Pinellas County 10/08/11 [Last modified: Saturday, October 8, 2011 8:54pm]
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