Brooksville City Council member Joe Bernardini needs to give up his seat on the fence. Bernardini is the deciding vote on adding fluoride to the municipal water supply and he shouldn't hesitate to protect his constituents, particularly children, from dental decay.
Last week, after a three-hour public workshop on fluoridation, Bernardini unsuccessfully sought a voter referendum on the issue. The rest of the council wisely declined. Looking out for the health, safety and welfare of the population is a role that correctly belongs to the council and it should not be abdicated in a search for political cover.
Bernardini is the only council member without a stated position, though he opposed fluoridation in the past. Frankie Burnett and Joe Johnston favor fluoridation, citing the healthy teeth of their own offspring they attributed to drinking fluoridated water. On the opposite side is Mayor Lara Bradburn who questioned whether fluoridation contributed to her own thyroid cancer. Vice Mayor Kevin Hohn advocated for a state Health Department public awareness campaign on the benefits of brushing and oral hygiene.
Hohn's attempt to pass the buck is not leadership. One of the leading attributes of fluoridating community water is that it does not require a change in behavior and its benefits are universal regardless of socio-economic standing or knowledge of oral hygiene.
"The only magic bullet we have right now is fluoride,'' said Dr. Johnny Johnson, a Palm Harbor pediatric dentist.
This debate came about because state health officials learned only recently that a unanimous council voted in September 2011 to kill the city's 25-year-old fluoridation program. The vote came, with no prior public notice, late in an evening budget hearing after just 78 seconds of discussion. Bradburn disingenuously characterized the vote as a cost-savings measure, but the $6,000 recouped in the utilities budget did not affect city property taxes nor utility rates. In that regard, the detailed discussions in last week's workshop were a welcome change from the previous lack of transparency and stubborn attitudes.
Unfortunately, misinformation was prevalent. Bradburn continued to quote studies about the dangers of fluoridation that comment on high levels of fluoride that naturally occur in water in other parts of the nation and elsewhere. The federal government recommends fluoride levels of 0.7 parts per million in a liter of water, while many of the studies condemning fluoridation focus on levels nearly six times higher. The city's own utility department's measurements showed levels within safe range of the optimal amount before the council pulled the plug in 2011.
Though the council again cast this discussion as budget related, nobody commented on the cost-benefit analysis of fluoridating public drinking water. Residents in a city the size of Brooksville should expect annual savings of $16 per person from avoiding the costs of cavity treatments and lost time to dental visits. Or, that a $7,000 annual city investment in fluoride should save $266,000 worth of dental care.
Bernardini would do well to consider those numbers or to focus on the health benefits of reduced tooth decay that accompany fluoridated drinking water. It is a benefit available to nearly 13.8 million Floridians, or 78 percent of the state population, but not to Brooksville residents.
The council should not govern by fear or ignorance. It needs to act in the best interests of city residents. It needs to restart its community fluoridation program to benefit the public health.