Pinellas County Commissioners decided Tuesday afternoon to stop adding fluoride to the water supply.
The decision came as a surprise because the county just started fluoridating water eight years ago, so it was considered a debated and settled issue.
It was also unexpected because the 4-3 vote came at a workshop on what was billed as an update on fluoridation.
The issue was brought forward by Norm Roche, Pinellas County's newest commissioner. He made the motion to stop fluoridating the water, even though he is not necessarily opposed to the treatment. He says he is opposed to the government making the decision.
"If you're going to put in the water a chemical that does not have anything to do with the cleanliness of purifying the water, then that needs to be in the hands of the public, the citizens need to vote on it," Roche said.
Several dozen citizens also spoke: residents concerned about alleged health risks from fluoridation on one side; and dentists arguing the benefits of systemic fluoridation in reducing cavities on the other.
Dentists at the meeting said not having fluoride in the water supply puts kids' teeth at risk.
"They will start to get more cavities on the smooth surfaces of their teeth and between them, in other words. So we'll start to see in the next few years—adults as well—adults will get more cavities," said Dr. Johnny Johnson, a Pinellas County dentist.
When other commissioners did not agree to a referendum, Roche made another motion to just stop fluoridation. Three other commissioners joined Roche, stunning the dentists still in the room.
The Florida Dental Association reacted within hours with a critical statement from its president.
"Our community water fluoridation programs are vital to the public health" said Dr. Cesar Sabates.
The citizens arguing against fluoridation were equally surprised by the vote, but pleased at the outcome.
"The fact is over the years the safe limit [of fluoride] keeps getting lower," said Chris Pitts of Clearwater. "So the science can't settle on what the safe limit is."
Earlier this year, the federal government lowered its recommended limit on the amount of fluoride in drinking water for the first time in nearly 50 years. The government said spots on some children's teeth showed they were getting too much of the mineral.
But the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it believed the increase was due mostly to children swallowing toothpaste with fluoride when they brush their teeth.
The commissioners vote to stop fluoridating the water supply affects up to 700,000 Pinellas residents, some of them direct county utility customers, and others living in communities that buy drinking water from the county.
"We serve water to Tarpon Springs, parts of Clearwater, parts of Oldsmar, Pinellas Park, Safety Harbor, many of the incorporated areas along the beach communities. Those are all part of our service area as well," said Bob Powell with the Pinellas County Water Department.
(The City of St. Petersburg supplies its own water, with added fluoride, and is not affected by the county's decision.)
A county water official said it will take a few weeks to discontinue the injection of fluoride and notify customers of "a substantial change to water treatment."
Roche, in the meantime, has not lost sight of his original goal.
"My intent now will be to bring back to the board a request that we...put this on a referendum so our citizens can be heard," Roche said.
What other municipalities do:
According to the Florida Department of Health, 78 percent of municipalities in the state add fluoride to the drinking water.
Hillsborough County has been fluoridating water since 1994. The City of Tampa also fluoridates its water.
Plant City voted in June of 2011 to start fluoridating its water.
The City of St. Petersburg has been doing it since 1992, and it won't be impacted by Pinellas County's decision.
Manatee and Sarasota counties have been doing it since 1995.
For more information:
Map of Florida counties with fluoridated water.
More information from the Florida Health Department of Fluoridation:
FOX 13 / WTVT-TV
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