Fluoridation of the water supply is one of the great public health benefits of the 20th century. It is also one of the persistently more controversial. Ideological opposition (to “the government” doing anything) has mixed with paranoia (they are poisoning us) to create a pretty sustained grass-roots movement, one that has blocked this effort in many places in the country. Now, according to Lizette Alvarez’ article in the NY Times “Looking to save money, more places decide to stop fluoridating the water” (October 14, 2011), saving money has been added to these arguments. The threat is that communities which have had the benefits of fluoridated water will lose them. This is apparently the what is happening in Pinellas County, Florida (the Clearwater/St. Petersburg area), as well as in Fairbanks, Alaska.
The situations in Florida and Alaska may well be different, however. The decision in Fairbanks is apparently tied to the relatively high levels of naturally-occurring fluoride in the water there, which would make fluoridation an unnecessary cost. In Florida, however, the decision seems to be driven by cost as well as the same issues I note above. “I’m in opposition to putting a medical treatment into the public drinking water supply without a vote of the people who drink that water,” said Norm Roche, a newly elected Republican county commissioner who spent 10 years doing policy research for the county Water Department and who led the turnaround effort. “We had a dozen to 15 doctors, dentists, dental hygienists and chemists here who want us to continue this practice but who could not agree themselves on how best to use fluoride.” The article does not further define what Mr. Roche means by “how best to use”, leaving us to imagine if this is an issue of putting it in the water vs another method (fluoridated toothpaste, fluoride treatments at home, fluoride varnishes by health providers) or disagreement as to whether it should be used at all.
In fact, the medical and dental community are pretty much in agreement that fluoride is good for preventing tooth decay, and that dental caries are a major cause of disability both medically and socially. It is hard for a child with a toothache to concentrate at school, not to mention the teasing that can come from having a mouthful of rotting teeth. This latter continues into adulthood; people with bad teeth (or no teeth) are seen as less smart and less competent, and are less likely to be hired in most jobs.
Fluoride works. In my “middle years”, my Chicago dentist had a pretty good idea of my age because he knew when the water in New York City, where I grew up, was first fluoridated. My “6-year molars” were covered with filled cavities (necessitating, all those years later, a lot of restoration work by him), while my “12-year molars”, which erupted after fluoridation, were almost cavity-free. I sure remember getting all those cavities filled, before dentists had high-speed drills or used anesthesia for such a simple, common procedure. My childhood self would certainly advocate for fluoride to prevent that discomfort!
There are, indeed, side effects to high levels of fluoride, whether naturally occurring or otherwise. The main sign of “fluorosis” is “marble teeth disease”, with “grotesque” brown staining of the teeth. It was an investigation into this condition in Colorado Springs in 1909 that led to the discovery both that the cause was high fluoride levels in the water, and that these teeth had virtually no decay (“The Story of Fluoride”, from the National Institutes of Dental and Craniofacial Research). This led to work that identified a level of fluoride that could be added to drinking water that was sufficient to prevent decay but too low to produce this condition.
After spending most of my life in New York and Chicago, one of the most dramatic things to catch my attention early in my stay in San Antonio, Texas, were the young children with stainless steel teeth, whose mouths distressingly reminded me of “Jaws”, the James Bond villain (albeit without the points!). I soon learned two things: 1) the stainless steel teeth were the result of having a great pediatric dental program at our dental school which could fix the mouths of children whose “baby teeth” had all rotted out, allowing them to be both pain-free and able to eat, and 2) the water in San Antonio was not fluoridated, which was a major cause (in combination with other behaviors, such as use of sugared drinks in baby bottles, feeding sugared soft-drinks to young children beyond the bottle years, and “bottle propping” which leaves the milk – and milk sugar – in the baby’s mouth) of the decay the led to the need for such repair. While only a small percentage of children in San Antonio had such stainless steel teeth, a very large percentage had significant and disabling tooth decay.
I also discovered that efforts to pass fluoridation had been defeated in San Antonio on at least two occasions in the past few decades. The opposition was largely from right-wing, John Birch Society, anti-government groups, but also included those who were from the other end of the political spectrum but believed in “natural” health, and thus opposed addition of fluoride. In 2002, an initiative spearheaded by the Mayor of San Antonio, finally led to passage of fluoridation for that city. During this campaign, virtually all the major politicians, all the dentists, physicians, and public health people, and most of the foundations and money were for the initiative. Nonetheless, it passed by only 52% of the vote. The good news here, I guess, is that it is an example of the power of regular people, not very well funded, to resist change being imposed on them. Unfortunately, it was contrary to their health interests.
As I note, the opposition was not solely from the right. During my time in San Antonio, I frequently attended open meetings of a group of progressives in a local Mexican restaurant. Primarily mainstream liberal Democrats, and including the late San Antonio New Deal mayor and newspaper columnist, Maury Maverick, the group was diverse, including socialists and “Greens” and even libertarians, whose interests in lack of government restrictions and privacy invasions gave them common cause. These last two groups, the Greens and libertarians, were opposed to fluoridation. The national Green presidential candidate, Ralph Nader, on a stop in San Antonio, even came out in opposition to the initiative. As a health care provider, I did my best to argue for the benefits of fluoridation, but was unable to win them over.
One argument made they made (at least the libertarians) was that “fluoride might be beneficial, but the government should not put it in our water supply”. Parents could use fluoridated toothpaste or fluoride rinses on their children’s teeth, or bring them to the dentist for fluoride varnish. Well, they could, but often they didn’t, and it was the children who would suffer the caries and their long-term consequences. Indeed in the ‘90s a new syndrome, dubbed “yuppie baby carie syndrome” was identified in children of well-off parents who made their infant formula with bottled water. (The causes of caries from bottle propping and unfluoridated water are well-described in the Wikipedia entry on “Early Childhood Caries”.) Of course, the spread of bottled water to a much wider socioeconomic group makes this even a bigger potential problem. Indeed, some water from natural springs contains minerals, sometimes including fluoride, while the bigger mass-products products from Coke – Dasani – and Pepsi – Aquafina – are municipal tap water that has been “purified” and thus do not. (This does not even begin to touch on all the environmental costs of bottled tap water, from plastic bottles to transporting tap water from one part of the country to another, but that’s another story.)
San Antonio, and more recently San Diego, are victories for fluoridation, while many cities, such as Wichita, remain unfluoridated, and others, such as Pinellas County and Fairbanks are going the other way. If Fairbanks has sufficient natural fluoride, then supplementation is an unnecessary cost. For those communities without adequate natural fluoride, it is a big mistake.