The Pinellas County Commission has taken a big step backward on public health, siding with the extreme rhetoric of a vocal conservative minority over sober scientific analysis and the county's medical community. The 4-3 vote Tuesday to end the county's water fluoridation program this fall will contribute to higher dental bills or poorer health for 700,000 Pinellas County residents. It is an indefensible retreat, and voters should remember this failure to stand up to scare tactics.
Commissioner Norm Roche helped plant the seed that led to Tuesday's vote, suggesting the county should cut the fluoridation program to save a modest $205,000 a year in user fees. That is sacrificing public health to save a few dollars. It wasn't until Tuesday night that it was clear Roche had the votes, and they came thanks to the growing influence of tea party extremists within the county Republican Party. Among the arguments antifluoride activists offered commissioners: Fluoride is a global conspiracy by a world government to keep people stupid.
Such baseless claims and absurd theories went largely unchallenged by the majority of the commission, including Commissioner John Morroni — who just eight years ago cast a vote to add fluoride to the county water supply. He flip-flopped to join fellow Republican commissioners Roche, Neil Brickfield and Nancy Bostock to ensure that Pinellas County residents have less access to fluoridated water than in any other major Florida county. St. Petersburg, Gulfport, Belleair and Dunedin still add fluoride to their water, though Dunedin is considering ending the practice.
Fluoride opponents tried to point to recent guidance from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control as proof that fluoridated water is dangerous. But those recommendations — far from repudiating the practice — only set new standards and guidance based on the latest research. Both agencies reaffirmed that the benefits of fluoridated water far outweigh any risks, a message a dozen local dentists, pediatricians and health officials echoed at Tuesday's meeting.
Morroni offered a poor excuse for his change of heart, saying opposition to the federal health care reform law is proof citizens want government to abandon the use of fluoride. Then should the government also stop treating water to make sure toxic substances have been removed? Or stop mandating that schoolchildren receive vaccines for deadly communicable diseases such as measles or tuberculosis?
Of course not. Public health is a central function of government, and decades of scientific research indicate that the low-cost addition of fluoride to water supplies saves on dental or medical care. Three responsible commissioners — Republicans Susan Latvala and Karen Seel and Democrat Ken Welch — appreciate the science and voted to continue a good public policy. Four others — Brickfield, Bostock, Morroni and Roche — succumbed to suppositions and hysteria to satisfy the most vocal conservative activists who view government as the enemy and public health efforts as dangerous conspiracies. Every Pinellas County water customer is the worse for it.