With fluoride, a return to science and sense

Published Nov. 20, 2012

A new era of enlightenment dawned Tuesday at the Pinellas County Commission. New commissioners Charlie Justice and Janet Long were sworn into office, and before noon they fulfilled their campaign promises to see that Pinellas resumes adding fluoride to the drinking water. When the final vote is taken next week, it will signal that science, public health and mainstream values are back in favor in the county courthouse.

The fluoride fiasco underscored the importance of civic engagement and local elections. The commission's 4-3 vote in October 2011 to stop adding fluoride to the drinking water in January came without warning. It was driven by the three most conservative Republican commissioners and the loud voices of a small group of fluoride opponents, many with tea party ties. They spread lies and fear as they filled the courthouse and lobbied with emails and phone calls. Their clamor influenced a moderate Republican commissioner, the normally sensible John Morroni, to side with the extremists.

The misinformed decision by the Fluoride Four tarnished Pinellas' reputation as a centrist community that values education, high-tech jobs and the welfare of all of its residents. But it also created opportunities that ultimately should produce long-range benefits.

The county's dentists and other dental health professionals organized to explain the benefits of adding fluoride to drinking water. As they reminded commissioners Tuesday, the overwhelming scientific evidence finds water fluoridation is the most effective, cost-efficient method of preventing tooth decay. And while everyone benefits, that fluoride is particularly important for low-income families who often do not seek regular dental care. That can result in unnecessary trips to hospital emergency rooms at public expense and missed school days. Since March, a new coalition of dental health professionals has spoken to more than 20,000 teen moms and Pinellas students from kindergarten to second grade about the importance of dental care.

The fluoride decision also helped motivate Justice and Long, two moderate Democrats and former state legislators, to run for the County Commission. They defeated two members of the Fluoride Four, conservative Republicans Nancy Bostock and Neil Brickfield, who refused to accept the scientific evidence. Now Justice and Long are poised to work with the Republican incumbents in a more collaborative fashion on all sorts of issues, from the homeless to transit.

Elections matter, and so do conversations with public officials. Morroni, who has not decided whether to seek re-election in 2014, switched his position to support adding fluoride back into the water in part because of the election results. But he said he also was influenced by the outpouring of public comments to him in support of fluoride, which he described as larger than he experienced as a commissioner or state legislator on any issue — including such hot buttons as abortion and gun control.

Of course, facts and election outcomes never sway everyone. Republican Commissioner Norm Roche continues to call for an unnecessary referendum. A handful of fluoride opponents lashed out at commissioners Tuesday, railing about forced medication and misrepresenting the science. A larger group is expected next week for the final vote. This time, the voices of a misinformed few should not carry the day. At least six of seven commissioners plan to vote to start adding fluoride back into the county's drinking water, and a new era has dawned for Pinellas County.