CLEARWATER — City Council member Bob Cundiff again diverged from his four colleagues on one of Tampa Bay's most sensitive subjects: fluoride.
On Thursday, the City Council voted 4-1 to pay KAT Construction $552,000 to build fluoride storage and pumps in the city's two water treatment plants, with Cundiff opposed.
A decade ago, the city had planned to launch a fluoride program in 2019 when all three water treatment facilities would be fully operational and the city would be totally weaned off Pinellas County water. But in 2016, the Council voted to accelerate that schedule and get the two existing water treatment plants pumped with fluoride sooner.
About 20 percent of Clearwater's daily water supply still comes from the county, which began adding fluoride in 2004. It means Clearwater's drinking water has below the recommended levels of fluoride until the city's program gets up and running.
But Cundiff said he's been a critic of fluoride for 60 years and won't be changing his mind now:
"I think it's unethical to force medical treatment on people that may be harmful to them," said Cundiff, who was also the lone vote in 2016 against accelerating the fluoride program. "We don't know what the long-term effects are. So it hardens the teeth. What does it do to the bones? We don't know. It's also, I think, unethical to force a treatment on someone who does not wish it. I think Clearwater ought to be safe rather than sorry."
Medical professionals overwhelmingly agree community fluoridation is a safe and effective way to prevent tooth decay. According to the American Dental Association, "fluoride in community water systems prevents at least 25 percent of tooth decay in children and adults, even in an era with widespread availability of fluoride from other sources, such as fluoride toothpaste."
The Pinellas County Commission in 2011 narrowly voted to stop adding fluoride to the water, and the switch resulted in a years-long debate. It was the crux of the 2012 election that knocked two Republican Commissioners out of office. The fluoride removal decision was reversed in 2013 when the two newly elected pro-fluoride Democrats, Janet Long and Charlie Justice, flipped the scales.
But Cundiff doesn't buy it.
"I do think the science behind fluoridation of water is unsettled in several aspects," Cundiff said. "Number one, does ingesting that fluoridated water really prevent cavities? People will say well dental cavity levels are going down but they're also going down in areas where the water is not fluoridated. There's also uncertainty of the neurotoxicity of community water that has fluoride in it."
Medical professionals would disagree. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considered community water fluoridation one of 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century.
Johnny Johnson, a former pediatric dentist in Palm Harbor and president of the American Fluoridation Society, said unfounded conspiracy theories about fluoride have been floated since the 1940s.
It started as a conspiracy that communists were putting fluoride in the water to dumb down citizens; it evolved into a claim that Hitler used it in concentration camps to control Jewish prisoners; it was then adopted as a pet issue of the conservative John Birch Society.
Johnson said the Internet has made it easier to spread false information. But to see the skepticism on a governmental level is concerning.
"It's foolish," Johnson said. "(Cundiff) was stating everything directly out of the anti-fluoride handbook 101. Everything he said, I could have said it before it came out of his mouth, chapter and verse."