What’s In Our Water

Dozens of people have spoken out at meetings against Pinellas County adding fluoride to the water supply, an outcry that helped trigger the county’s attention-grabbing decision to stop fluoridating Dec. 31.

But on any day, small levels of other contaminants, such as radium, arsenic and copper, turn up in the same water. None of them came up in hours of debate this month.

Just as the vast majority of health officials say the fluoride in water is safe, so have federal and state regulators found nothing harmful in the testing for other substances by county utilities. But those contaminants can be dangerous at much higher amounts.

“If we tried to remove everything from drinking water — I mean everything — it would be horrendously expensive and the health effects would be negligible,” said county water and sewer director Bob Powell, who has been a chemist and lab director for more than 30 years with Pinellas.

For example, radium is radioactive and exists in tiny levels in the county’s water. The amount found in a county analysis of its drinking water was below federal limits, but above the goal of zero in 2010.

“You wearing a watch that glows? That’s like thousands of times stronger than the level in drinking water,” Powell said.

But no one in the commission meetings mentioned radium. Why the worry about fluoride but not about other substances?

Bill Thomas of Palm Harbor said he wasn’t aware of radium or other substances in the water, but test results didn’t worry him.

The biggest factor to him is that adding fluoride goes beyond government’s role of providing clean, safe water.

“Nobody hired our county commissioners to add any chemical or agent to the water after it is as clean as humanly possible,” said Thomas, who was among tea party activists and fluoride opponents pressing for the change.

“I’d love for the government to do what it’s supposed to do and quit trying to help us,” Thomas said. “If diabetes gets bad, are they going to start throwing diabetes medicine in the water?”

Fluoride turns up naturally in water, but Pinellas adds fluorosilicic acid produced from phosphate mining. Critics seized on it as “industrial waste,” but Powell and environmental agencies say the heavily diluted level poses no risk under environmental rules.

Fluoride aside, federal standards overall are not protecting public health enough, said Linda Young, director of the Clean Water Network of Florida. Many people don’t pay close enough attention to the risks in the state, including its penchant for taking inexpensive, lesser routes to treating drinking water, Young said.

While there are good arguments pro and con, Young said she avoids fluoridated water because of concerns about the risks outweighed worries about cavities to her. She uses filters to rid her taps of chlorine, too.

“Just because water is coming out your tap doesn’t mean it’s clean and safe,” she said.

Federal law requires the county and other utilities to disinfect water for bacteria and to test for 91 contaminants — tests that measure for a lifetime’s effects, said Dale Froneberger, an environmental scientist at U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But adding fluoride to what health agencies deem optimal levels is optional.

That helps make it much more of a “hot button issue” than other substances that turn up in water supplies, said Alan Roberson, who works on EPA regulations as federal relations director for the American Water Works Association. Most utilities have 10 to 20 contaminants in their water, he said.

Pinellas has no drinking water violations within the past five years, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

“The bottom line is they’re meeting all the Safe Drinking Water Act requirements, and in many cases they’re exceeding them (for the good),” said Jeff Greenwell, regional water facilities program director for the DEP.

Besides what turns up in small quantities in water, Pinellas adds disinfectants — chlorine, for example — to clean the water. A liquid disinfectant, sodium hypochlorite, produces vomiting and tissue damage if too much is ingested.

Copper and lead are found in tap water, but again, in levels below what regulators deem a health hazard.

In fact, the World Health Organization and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services say copper is essential in small quantities for something else: good health.

St. Petersburg Times