After one year, the tide turns on fluoridation
Pinellas County Commission votes to reinstate
Clearwater, Fla.—After a year of heated public debate, grassroots education and advocacy by dentists and voters’ rejection of two county commissioners who voted against fluoridation, Pinellas County, Florida, will begin fluoridating its water again.
The Pinellas County Commission voted 6-1 Nov. 27 to reinstate fluoridation to its 700,000 residents served by county water. The commission listened to three hours of public testimony for and against fluoridation before voting. The county expects to be fluoridating again by March 1, 2013. The lead time will enable the county time to inform residents about the decision with fliers in their water bills and give health care providers the chance to curtail fluoride supplementation.
“The citizens of Pinellas County were served well today by the actions of the County Commission,” said Dr. Kim Jernigan, Florida Dental Association president, in a Nov. 27 statement. “Thank you to the Pinellas County Commission for its vote today.”
“The 6-1 vote by the commissioners to put fluoride back into the Pinellas County water system demonstrates the effectiveness of an organized effort by the dental community and the many organizations that collaborated with us,” said Dr. Terry L. Buckenheimer, ADA 17th District trustee and a Tampa area dentist.
The Pinellas County fluoridation saga began Oct. 4, 2011, when the commission abruptly voted 4-3 to stop fluoridating at the end of the year. What began as a discussion to cut costs to the county erupted into a contentious debate about fluoridation’s safety and health effects and the government’s role in the choices of citizens. Commissioners heard testimony from more than a dozen dentists and pediatricians who advocated for continuing fluoridation to improve the dental health of Pinellas County residents and lower the county’s costs for dental care for the underserved. Speakers against fluoridation noted their concerns about side effects, government intervention and cost.
After the vote, local dentists and dental societies and other pro-fluoridation individuals and groups began working at the grassroots level to educate policymakers and residents about the benefits of fluoridation.
Local dentists, led by Dr. Johnny Johnson, a pediatric dentist in Palm Harbor, Fla., first set out to provide scientific education to the commissioners who voted to stop fluoridation.
“We met with the four commissioners individually for 10 to 12 hours to address their concerns over fluoridation’s safety,” said Dr. Johnson. We provided them with a custom-built 500+ page fluoride reference manual and reviewed it with them to help them learn the scientific basis for the safety and effectiveness of fluoridation. After four months of intense scientific efforts, they each told us that they would not change their votes. So we moved into the political arena to help bring fluoridation back to Pinellas County.”
Two former state legislators last spring expressed interest in running for Pinellas County Commission seats in the 2012 general election. Democrats Charlie Justice and Janet Long filed to run on the primary platform to restore fluoridation against Republican commissioners Nancy Bostock and Neil Brickfield, two commissioners who had voted to stop fluoridating.
Dr. Johnson said many area dentists said they had never previously discussed political issues with their patients, but this year they enthusiastically supported the candidates running on the fluoridation platform.
“The candidates had the full support of our dentists,” said Dr. Johnson. “They sent email blasts to their patients alerting them to the issue, posting information on their websites, put yard signs at their offices and homes, made campaign contributions and talked to their patients one-on-one. It was truly a grassroots effort. We weren’t supporting candidates on a partisan basis, but on the issue of fluoridation.”
Ms. Bostock and Mr. Brickfield were defeated in the Nov. 6 general election—the first Republican incumbents in nearly 30 years to lose in a general election in Pinellas County. On election night, Mr. Brickfield told the Tampa Bay Times, “The voters clearly said they want fluoride in the water. And I will never vote against fluoride again as long as I live.”
Since last October, local dentists organized to form the Pinellas County Oral Health Coalition, made up of nearly 24 organizations that shared interest in oral health education, prevention and access to care. The West Coast District Dental Association, Pinellas County Dental Association and Upper Pinellas County Dental Association also collaborated to launch the website, keeppinellasfluoridated.org, where health professionals and patients could find information and tools as well as links to ADA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Florida Department of Health and other resources. The home page tells visitors, “Due to the recent action taken in Pinellas County the affiliates have joined together to educate the public and provide useful information for professionals to become involved in an effort to keep Pinellas County fluoridated.”
“The shock waves of the previous 4-3 vote to remove fluoride culminated into a tidal wave of support,” said Dr. Buckenheimer. “The citizens of Pinellas County want this cost effective way to help in the prevention of decay, especially for those who are least able to afford other preventative measures.”
“I’m so excited,” Dr. Johnson added. “This was a great win, especially for those residents who are at or below poverty level and those who are out of work or simply can’t afford dental care. “Without the collaborative efforts between dentists, hygienists, assistants, our local oral health coalition, physicians and private citizens—as well as the local media keeping the heat on this issue for an entire year—we could never have accomplished this unprecedented goal.”