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updated 10/12/2011 4:42:18 PM ET 2011-10-12T20:42:18

One of Florida's largest counties will stop adding fluoride to the water supply before the end of the year, commissioners decided this week, in a move that some opponents say was influenced more by tea party propaganda than it was by health or financial considerations.

The issue was pushed by tea party activists, charged one commissioner who voted to keep fluoride in Pinellas County's water supply. Fluoride is a chemical credited with dramatically reducing cavities and tooth decay.

"We're going to pay a price for this for generations to come," Ken Welch, the commissioner, said, reported USATODAY, adding that activists "hijacked" the conversation.

Opinion: Poor suffer if fluoride taken from water

Pinellas County will allow the current supply of fluoride to run out, which should happen sometime before Dec. 31, said commission Chairwoman Susan Latvala after county commissioners voted 4-3 on Tuesday to discontinue adding the substance. The move affects about 700,000 people.

The vote followed three hours of heated debate, where dentists citing decades of medical research on the benefits of fluoride went head-to-head with anti-big government activists who argued fluoride was harmful.

"Fluoride is a toxic substance," said tea party activist Tony Caso of Palm Harbor, The St. Petersburg Times reported. "This is all part of an agenda that's being pushed forth by the so-called globalists in our government and the world government to keep the people stupid so they don't realize what's going on."

"This is the U.S. of A., not the Soviet Socialist Republic," Caso told the commission.

"You don't have the right to put it in the water," said another Pinellas County resident, Jim Pruitt. "You don't have the right to medicate us."

Pruitt told the commission that he spent $1,500 on a water filtration system to remove the fluoride and that he doesn't trust the "so-called scientists who don't really know what they are talking about" when it comes to its benefits.

Used in water since the 1940s
Fluoride proponents say the chemical, which has been added to many U.S. water supplies since the 1940s, prevents cavities and is safe. It's also "efficient and cost-effective," dentist Christopher Beach of the Pinellas County Health Department told the commission, reported the St. Petersburg Times.

Fluoridation costs Pinellas County about $205,000 a year, according to the Times.

Pinellas County just started adding fluoride to its drinking water seven years ago. Commissioner Norm Roche, a conservative who was elected last year, brought the issue back into the spotlight, calling it a "social sort of program" that the county should avoid, said the Times.

John Morroni, a commissioner who had supported adding fluoride seven years ago, voted against it this year.

"I don't think the county government should be telling people they have to have fluoride in the water," Morroni said, according to The Times.

The commission's vote prompted charges of bowing to tea party demands in editorials written in the Miami Herald and the Florida Times-Union, among other media outlets. A column on the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting's website blasted the decision, and cited The American Dental Association's position calling community water fluoridation “the single most effective public health measure to prevent tooth decay.”

The Times noted that at least 14 of the 23 opponents who spoke at the debate or turned in comment cards at the meeting have participated in tea party groups in the past. The paper also said: "A blast of conservatism in 2010 helped elect Commissioner Norm Roche, who put fluoride elimination on the agenda this year. Then the tea party's brand of hands-off government helped persuade Commissioner John Morroni to change his stance" on fluoride.

In response, Roche posted a note on his Facebook page.

"The folks that appeared in opposition to the practice were not all, and in fact very few might even have been, associated with the Tea Party. Moreover, the fluoridation debate was and has been in existence long before the Tea Party emerged," Roche wrote.

Welch, who said the tea party "hijacked" the debate before the vote, said, "This is one of the most important decisions this commission can make. We're moving backwards."

He urged the commission to hold another discussion about the issue, but the group declined.

Fluoride is a mineral that exists naturally in water and soil, and fluctuates depending on the day. Officials in Pinellas were adding fluoride to bring the level up to the federal recommendations.

About 70 years ago, scientists discovered that people who lived where water supplies naturally had more fluoride also had fewer cavities. Today, most public drinking water supplies are fluoridated, especially in larger cities. Counting everyone, including those who live in rural areas, about 64 percent of Americans drink fluoridated water.

'Not a poison, not a toxin'
Several dentists and doctors who attended Tuesday's meeting said not fluoridating the water means parents will have to pay extra for their children's treatments — something that will be difficult for many families in this tough economy.

Florida pediatrician Dr. David Cimino said there's solid evidence that fluoridation reduces tooth decay.

"The way we use it today, it's safe," he said. "Fluoride is not a poison, not a toxin."

Said Dr. Elizabeth Lense, who is also a professor of dentistry at the University of Florida: "Fluoridation is not medication. When we look at good science and not junk on the Internet ... water fluoridation does reduce the rate of decay."

Earlier this year, federal officials said getting too much fluoride causes spots on some kids' teeth.

In January, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced a proposal to change the recommended fluoride level to 0.7 milligrams per liter of water, down from a range of 0.7 to 1.2 milligrams per liter, the standard since 1962. Pinellas County had the same standard, said Latvala.

The Environmental Protection Agency will review whether the maximum cutoff of 4 milligrams per liter is too high.

A reported increase in the spotting problem is one reason the federal government announced that it planned to lower the recommended levels for fluoride in water supplies — the first such change in nearly 50 years.

About two out of five adolescents have tooth streaking or spottiness because of too much fluoride, a surprising government study found recently. In some extreme cases, teeth can even be pitted by the mineral — though many cases are so mild only dentists notice it.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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