The federal Centers for Disease Control calls fluoridated water one of the top 10 public health achievements of the 20th century. But many people still aren't convinced.
In Florida, opponents recently persuaded Pinellas County commissioners to stop adding fluoride to the water supply — a practice the county began in 2003. By the end of the year, Pinellas will once again be the largest county in Florida without fluoridated water.
That vote came as a surprise to those who thought the question of whether to fluoridate water has long been settled. Not so, says county commissioner Norm Roche, a fluoridation opponent.
"Whenever you're dealing with the public drinking water supply ... no argument should ever be considered closed," Roche says.
Fluoridated water is endorsed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. surgeon general, the American Dental Association, and the medical establishment as a whole.
Nearly three-quarters of those on public systems have fluoridated water, according to the most recent statistics, and the number of Americans drinking fluoridated water still appears to be growing.
Dr. Ed Hopwood, chairman of the Pinellas County Dental Association's Fluoride Committee, says that 60 years of scientific research clearly detail the health benefits of fluoridation.
"There are multiple studies done on a national level showing reduction in decayed, missing and filled teeth, both in children and adults," says Hopwood, one of several dentists who spoke at the commission hearings.
But opponents note that Pinellas County isn't alone in rethinking the fluoride in its water. One group, the Fluoride Action Network, keeps a list of more than 200 communities across the U.S. that it says have dropped fluoridation in recent years.
In January, the Department of Health and Human Services proposed a new, lower recommendation for the amount of fluoride in drinking water now that Americans get regular exposure from other sources, including toothpaste and mouthwash. Fluoride helps keep teeth healthy, but too much of it can damage tooth enamel and lead to discoloration — a condition known as fluorosis that affects about 40 percent of adolescents, according to one federal study.
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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
According to the Federal Centers for Disease Control, fluoridated water ranks among the top 10 public health achievements of the 20th century, but in Pinellas County, Florida, many locals disagree and they've convinced the county commission to stop adding fluoride to the water supply.
NPR's Greg Allen reports there's disagreement now about whether the vote was motivated by health or politics.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: At Pinellas County's water treatment plant in Tarpon Springs, Steve Soltau is the manager. We're looking at a small garden of pipes and tanks, the water fluoridation system.
STEVE SOTAU: This is where our tanker trucks pull up and pull out - put our liquid. It's called hydro-fluorosilicic acid and we put it in - this is a 5,000 gallon storage tank. It's probably enough for about six months, nine months worth of product.
ALLEN: This tank, however, won't be refilled. The county commission recently voted to stop using the chemical, which dissolves in water, to form fluoride. By the end of the year, Pinellas will once again be the largest county in Florida without fluoridated water.
It was in 2003, just eight years ago, that elected officials finally approved fluoridation. At that time, Norm Roche was one of those who fought against it. Later, Roche was elected to the Pinellas County Commission. This month, he decided it was time to reopen the discussion.
NORM ROCHE: My concerns, this time, as they were back in 2003, are what type of compound is being used to fluoridate the water and at what level should the citizens who ingest it every day be involved in that decision-making process.
ALLEN: At county commission meetings this month, Roche brought fluoridation up for a vote. Commissioners voted four to three to stop adding it to the county's water when the current supply runs out. That vote came as a surprise to those who thought the question of whether to fluoridate water has long been settled. Not so, says Roche.
ROCHE: Whenever you're dealing with the public drinking water supply, no reasonable discussion on the chemicals used, whether to treat it for purity or treat it for fluoride, if you will, after the fact - no argument should ever be considered closed.
S. EDWARD HOPWOOD: How's everything been?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Good, good.
HOPWOOD: You've been good? All right.
ALLEN: Dr. Ed Hopwood is a dentist in the town of Clearwater. He's also chair of the Pinellas County Dental Association's Fluoride Committee. Hopwood and other dentists spoke at the commission hearings, detailing the health benefits of fluoridation documented through 60 years of scientific research.
HOPWOOD: There were multiple studies done on a national level, showing a reduction in decayed, missing and filled teeth, both in children and adults, and a dramatic difference between non-fluoridated areas and fluoridated areas. So there is a dramatic difference.
ALLEN: Fluoridated water is endorsed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Surgeon General, the American Dental Association and the medical establishment as a whole. Commissioner Roche says he's heard from other dentists and doctors, though, who question fluoridation and he's not convinced yet that the chemical used, fluorosilicic acid, is safe.
Dr. Hopwood says there was another factor at work in the commission's vote to end fluoridation: the political clout of anti-fluoride activists who are members of the Tea Party. The Tea Party is active in Pinellas County and when some local activists talk, Hopwood says commissioners listen.
HOPWOOD: This was a group of four commissioners who were beholden to a radical group of Tea Party activists, so it's not a mainstream Tea Party issue. It's a radical group that has gotten a hold of these four commissioners.
ALLEN: That issue, what role the local Tea Party played, has been almost as controversial in Pinellas County as the decision to end fluoridation. One of the local activists, Kris Gionet, is the cofounder of Pinellas Patriots. She says she joined the fight against fluoridation because it's one more example of too much government, but she insists that this is a Pinellas County issue that has nothing to do with Tea Party groups elsewhere.
KRIS GIONET: We look at local issues and we look at our local situations and we decide as a group of united citizens what's good for our individual communities and that's the beauty of the Tea Party.
ALLEN: Although it's scheduled to end in a few months, the debate over fluoridation continues in Pinellas County. Commissioner Roche said he would support a countywide referendum allowing residents to vote whether to add fluoride to their water.
County Commissioner Ken Welch, a fluoridation proponent, says he's seen a poll that shows a majority of county residents support adding fluoride to the water.
KENNETH WELCH: So if we can get the science out there, I think the referendum would win, but then where do you go? Do you have a referendum on required immunizations for school? I mean, do you have a referendum for the chemicals that you use to disinfect the water? I think some things, you just go with science, so I'd just like to see the commission do the right thing here.
ALLEN: Fluoridation opponents note that Pinellas County is not the only community rethinking the issue. One group, the Fluoride Action Network, keeps a list showing more than 200 communities it says have dropped fluoridation in recent years.
But many other communities are adopting it and the number of Americans drinking fluoridated water still appears to be growing. The most recent statistics show nearly three-quarters of those on public systems have fluoridated water.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.