Fluoridation: praised by some as a prevention for dental cavities and condemned by others as a Communist plot. Either way, it's coming soon to Hillsborough County.
"Without question, it's one of the best bangs for the buck you can get," said Dr. Howell Morrison, a Tampa dentist and spokesman for the American Dental Association. "It nips in the bud the vicious cycle of decay that breaks down teeth."
The drinking water in Hillsborough County already has a small amount _ 0.1 parts per million _ of naturally occurring fluoride. Within a few weeks, Hillsborough County water customers will see that level boosted to 0.8 parts per million, a level most dentists and doctors say strengthens tooth enamel and reduces tooth decay, particularly for children but also for adults.
Tampa has been fluoridating its drinking water supply since 1988. And in Pinellas County, the cities of St. Petersburg, Belleair and Dunedin already fluoridate their drinking water. Pinellas County does not have a countywide program, and while Pasco County has been authorized to fluoridate, it has not begun the program, said Kim Barnhill, fluoridation project coordinator for the state of Florida.
Hillsborough County commissioners made the decision to add fluoride to the county's drinking water in 1988, but the program was delayed for six years until completion of an $82-million capital improvements program for water facilities. With those improvements in place, fluoride soon will be added to the water supply at three large water-treatment plants instead of the 60 smaller ones formerly in existence, said Bob Tisdale, senior engineer for the county's public utilities department.
Fluoridation has been endorsed by the American Dental Association and numerous other professional health organizations.
But endorsements have done little to convince groups that say the chemical is a poison forced on people when it's put in drinking water. Americans United to Outlaw Fluoridation _ based in Oregon _ views fluoridation as public enemy No. 1. And anybody who says a little dab won't hurt you hasn't talked to the group's acting president Ted Rowell.
"They sold cities on putting a dab in the water supply to get rid of the stockpile of aluminum," Rowell said. "There are still people who believe fluoride in the nation's drinking water will lead to one world order. I don't know about that, but I do know this, fluoride leaches lead and increases arsenic in the water, which has a tendency to work on the mind and reduce it."
Despite anti-fluoride groups like Rowell's that have attacked fluoridation for decades, the public debate over its addition to the public water supply seems to be dissipating, a trend Tampa dentist Ralph Fortson says is due to a better-educated public.
"The public seems to be accepting fluoridation of the county water supply with very little flack," Fortson said. "Surrounding counties have been fluoridated without adverse effects, and hundreds of studies show how effective it is."
The chemical that provides the fluoride in drinking water, fluorosilicic acid, is stored in large bulk chemical containers. In Hillsborough, it will be pumped into the water supply in much the way chlorine is added. The pumps will be monitored 24 hours a day and if for any reason the concentration gets too high, an alarm will be sounded and the pumps will automatically stop, Tisdale said.
An $89,000 HRS grant helped defray the cost of Hillsborough County's fluoride program, resulting in a cost of less than 1-cent per month per customer. "That's cheap for providing a chemical to a couple of hundreds of thousands of people," Tisdale said.
Dentists, meanwhile, greet what they've worked so hard to accomplish with mixed emotions.
"We're the only profession that lives off other people's trouble trying to put ourselves out of business," said Dr. Gary Baines, a pediatric dentist in South Tampa. "And it's working."