The American Dental Association called community water fluoridation “the single most effective public health measure to prevent tooth decay.” Yet the Pinellas County Commission, lobbied by tea party activists, voted to stop water fluoridation. (Photo: SXC.)

By Ralph De La Cruz
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

In 1999, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited community water fluoridation as one of the 10 great public health achievements of the last century.

One of the 10 great public health achievements of modern times. That’s a pretty good recommendation.

The CDC points out that as a result of fluoridation, “Tooth loss is no longer considered inevitable, and increasingly adults in the United States are retaining most of their teeth for a lifetime.”

Water supply fluoridation began in 1945 and by 1992, 10,567 public water systems serving 135 million persons were using it. About 70 percent of cities with more than 100,000 residents use fluoridated water. And the long-term results have been striking. In 1962, the percentage of people age 45 to 54 who had lost their permanent chompers was 20 percent. By the 1990s, it was 9.1 percent.

“The oldest post-World War II ‘baby boomers’ will reach age 60 years in the first decade of the 21st century, and more of that birth cohort will have a relatively intact dentition at that age than any generation in history,” the CDC reported.

And, in urban areas, fluoridation does all that for just 31 cents per person per year. Less than a tenth of a penny per day. That’s about as efficient as health care can get.

The American Dental Association called community water fluoridation “the single most effective public health measure to prevent tooth decay.” And the last five surgeons general have advocated for fluoridation. It might be the only thing that both Republican and Democratic administrations have agreed upon.

But all that apparently isn’t enough for the Pinellas County Commission. Last week, Pinellas commissioners voted 4-3 to stop fluoridating the water for cities such as St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Pinellas Park and for 700,000 residents who live in unincorporated parts of the county.

The vote was apparently a political nod to the tea party, which reportedly opposed fluoridation because it costs money and it’s yet another example of government intrusion. Commission newcomer Norm Roche had been elected last year with tea party backing. And tea party activism reportedly pushed another commissioner, John Morroni, to switch his vote after he voted for fluoridation in 2003.

After the commission meeting, Kris Gionet, one of the organizers of the tea party Pinellas Patriots, told the St. Petersburg Times: “What we asked from them as a board is that when the buck stops with them, they take a conservative stance and spend taxpayers’ money wisely.”

As far back as 1999, tea party fave Sharron Angle was spearheading fluoride opposition in Nevada. Her problem with fluoridation had less to do with money than with fear. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that Angle thought fluoridation could put lead, arsenic or mercury into the water, an unfounded fear according to the CDC.

Other folks worry it could cause brittle bones, brain disease, even cancer. And they contend it’s illegal. However, the National Cancer Institute says that extensive studies by the Public Health Service and the National Research Council found “no indication of increased cancer risk associated with fluoridated drinking water.”

From Washington, D.C., to city and county halls, the tea party’s oversized voice is being heard: Shutting down the government is a good thing. Global warming is non-existent. Evolution has no greater validity than creationism. President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States. Immigration will destroy the country. And now, water fluoridation is dangerous.

“I think the tea party has engulfed themselves or surrounded themselves with conspiracy theorists,” former Pinellas County Commissioner Ronnie Duncan said. He believes the commission would be better served dealing with more pressing problems such as unemployment.

In 2010, Pinellas County had an unemployment rate of 11.7 percent.