At age 85, Theodore Wall believed the benefits of adding fluoride to drinking water were settled. Just like brushing his teeth every day.
That's why he is critical of Pinellas County's decision to stop adding fluoride as of Dec. 31.
"I think it's a mistake. I think fluoride does your teeth good," said Wall, a retired Marine who lives in Pinellas Park.
In strong numbers, adults in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties agree with him. Given the choice, they would prefer fluoride be added to their tap water, according to a new St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 Poll.
It found that 57 percent of residents supported adding fluoride, while 34 percent preferred none go into their water. Another 9 percent were undecided.
The poll, conducted by Braun Research, surveyed 508 adults in Pinellas and Hillsborough Dec. 3-11. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.
The Pinellas County Commission voted 4-3 in October to stop adding fluoride to drinking water, seven years after starting the practice to prevent cavities. The emotional vote — reaffirmed again Tuesday — rekindled fights that some thought ended decades ago.
Both the city of Tampa and Hillsborough County add fluoride to their water.
Major dental and public health groups say fluoridation is safe and a cost-effective health benefit. Critics succeeded this fall with warnings of health risks — notably government warnings about overexposure to infants — and people's liberties being infringed.
But 50 percent of respondents in both counties disapproved of the Pinellas action. A third of respondents approved, and 17 percent were undecided, according to the poll.
The public's dissonance with the commission vote was stronger in Pinellas. There, 63 percent of adults want fluoride added to the water, and 54 percent disapproved of the commission's action. A third of those surveyed prefer no fluoride be added to the water, and a similar number approved of the vote.
The margin of error of those results was 6.2 percentage points.
Commissioner John Morroni, whose reversal of his 2003 vote in favor of fluoride proved critical to this year's action, said this week he would change his position again if 55 to 60 percent of voters supported adding fluoride.
However, he said, he wants those results from voters themselves. His idea for a referendum got no support from the commission this week.
"That's not a valid measure, that's a poll," Morroni said of the results.
He also said as incoming board chairman he would support another attempt at a ballot measure, but only if dentists resolve their own disagreements over a referendum.
Dentist Amy Anderson, president of the Pinellas County Dental Association, cast doubt on that happening, though.
"Very honestly, I would have hoped that more people would have been in favor of fluoridation," she said of the poll results, noting that dentists probably will focus efforts on supporting pro-fluoride candidates in 2012.
Pinellas Commissioner Ken Welch, who supports adding fluoride, said he remains reluctant to back a referendum because of the political risks.
The poll "tells me our general public has a pretty good knowledge about what the science of fluoride is, and that it's a good practice," Welch said. "My issue is how it gets spun in a presidential election year."
Pro-fluoride residents from the poll cite health benefits.
"I think it's probably a good idea to keep it in the water. I think most people don't take as good care of their teeth as they could," said Dan Caruthers, 44, a father of two who lives near Largo.
"It seems like if something is working and working fine, there's no reason to change."
However, the $205,000 annual cost of adding fluoride led Sandra Moore, 73, of South Pasadena, to support the commission's vote. The government should stop the practice, given some people's questions, to save money in tight times, she said.
"They say fluoride is good for our teeth. I think that's true … (but) who's to say they are going to find out some years now, 'Oops, we shouldn't do that,' " she said.
In Hillsborough County, 52 percent wanted fluoride to be added to their tap water, while 36 percent did not, and 12 percent were undecided. The margin of error there was 6.1 percentage points.
Also, 46 percent said they disapproved of Pinellas commissioners, while 34 percent approved and 19 percent were undecided.
Kimberly Wozunk, 42, of Valrico said Pinellas' decision will increase dental costs. Her family has had fluoridated water for 16 years, which she credits with her two kids never having cavities.
Learning that Pinellas will stop the practice made her feel fortunate — but baffled.
"I pretty much had a snark moment," she said. "I was like, 'Are you kidding me?' "
David DeCamp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8779. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/decamptimes