Pinellas County was set to begin fluoridating its water at midnight Thursday, ending a more than yearlong period in which it laid claim to being the biggest county in Florida not to do so.
Workers at the county's two water treatment facilities planned to flip a switch when the clock struck twelve, powering the systems that pump in water, measure the levels of natural fluoride and raise it to the level recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The change, which will affect about 700,000 people in Pinellas, is a direct result of a political shift on the County Commission.
In 2011, the board narrowly voted to stop adding fluoride to the water, citing concern that residents might be ingesting too much fluoride, which exists naturally in small amounts in the county's water.
But last November's election brought seismic change. The cavity-fighting mineral became a campaign issue that two pro-fluoride Democrats used to knock two Republican commissioners out of office. "I will never vote against fluoride again as long as I live," was Republican Neil Brickfield's memorable election-night declaration.
After the two new commissioners took office in November, the group reversed its earlier vote. They decided to wait to begin fluoridation until March to allow time to alert residents of the change. Commissioner Norm Roche, who led the push to halt fluoridation, was the only member to vote against restoring it.
"I think we can look forward to a better, healthier constituency," Commissioner Janet Long said Thursday.
During their campaigns, Long and Charlie Justice went so far as to order signs shaped like molars with the words "Pro Fluoride!"
Pinellas shut down fluoridation at midnight Dec. 31, 2011, so there is symmetry in choosing the same late hour to set the pumps in motion again. And doing so gives the county time to fix any problems before people wake up, said Steve Soltau, the water supply manager for the county's S. K. Keller Water Treatment Facility.
When residents in the northern part of the county wake up today and stumble into the bathroom to brush their teeth and shower, the water coming out of the pipes should have more fluoride than the day before. It will be another two or three days before the newly treated water makes its way to Pinellas' southern tip.
"It's just like switching a breaker in your garage," Soltau said, describing how a small chemical injection pump, no bigger than a set you'd see in a chemistry class, drops the colorless hydrofluorosilicic acid into the water. The level, which is set to 0.7 milligrams per liter, is triple-checked, he said.
After commissioners voted to end fluoridation in 2011, Pinellas County gave its remaining fluoride to Dunedin, which controls its own water and, like St. Petersburg, Gulfport and Belleair, has continued to add fluoride.
To ready the system to start working again, Robert Powell, the county's water director, said he spent about $130,000 to buy fluoride from Dupont and another $30,000 on operational costs. The county also spent about $25,000 to replace the computer system at the Keller facility. Unused for over a year, the equipment that records incoming levels of natural fluoride had broken.
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Powell said he and the commissioners received some congratulatory emails, as well as a few saying, "Gee, we were happy you took it out and wish you'd kept it out."
"I think the commission at least feels the results of the latest election clearly indicate where the majority of the opinion lies," he said.
Some opposition remains. Last year, when the commission voted to add fluoride into the water again, dozens of residents attended the meeting to protest. A few said that if the commission went ahead with fluoridation, they would buy equipment to filter it out of their water.
Apparently, a few have. On Thursday, an employee for H2ofilters.com, a Dunedin-based company that sells filtration gear online, said an Indian Rocks man ordered four filters.
"He wanted to have the ones to remove the fluoride," the employee said.
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8779.