Fluoride for all? Why communities do and don't add it to their water

May 17, 2013

In the last several years, about 140 communities across the country have decided to stop added fluoride to their water supplies. In November, the village of Pulaski's water board voted to no long put fluoride in their water. Earlier this week, the Watertown City Council heard arguments that they should do the same thing. Communities like these worry the element could be harming their citizens, corroding their pipes or feel like it's just a government intrusion. This trend comes despite dentists and the Centers for Disease Control calling fluoridation of water a major public health advancement of the last century. Lorraine Rapp and Linda Lowen, hosts of WRVO's weekly health and wellness show "Take Care" recently spoke about this controversial issue with Dr. William Bowen, a dental health expert and professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center, who has also worked for the Food and Drug Administration and the CDC.

Lorraine Rapp: How did it come to be that researchers realized the benefit of fluoride and when was it first added to the water ?

Dr. William Bowen: What really prompted the addition of the fluoride to the drinking water was the observation during inscription during the last war... when two million young people were recruited into the army and 900,000 of them failed the medical test. And by far, the most common reason was the lack of dental health, 20 percent. So dental decay was the largest single cause for rejection. So the first study was carried out interestingly enough in Michigan and the second one in Kingston. And fluoride was first added to drinking water in 1945, and then the affect was absolutely startling. And as the years went on, the benefit was as much as 50 to 60 percent.  So Rochester interestingly enough was fluoridated in 1952, and Buffalo in 1955, and I regret to tell you Syracuse was a little late in 1965. And we now in the United States have over 204 million people drinking fluoridated water that represents roughly 75 percent of all the people who are eligible.  And the benefits are truly phenomenal. For every dollar spent on water fluoridation, it probably saves $17 - 30.

Linda Lowen: what about the growing concern it seems that a number of communities are basically saying “I don’t want a lot of government intervention in my life?"

Dr. Bowen: Well, the fact of the matter is that dental care, or dental cavities, is a major public health problem. And it is in the best interest of our community and society in general that this disease is brought under control. For example, the public spends over $80 billion a year on treating dental disease, and of that it [is] calculated about 40 billion, it could be attributed to rotting teeth. The other additional point is rotting teeth continue to be one of the leading reasons for people going to the emergency room.  Also, it's one of the leading causes for people being absent from work and absent from school, so it’s a major, major public health problem.  And the nice thing about adding fluoride to the water is that it benefits the rich and poor alike.  And to expect people to spend money on treating oral disease, who have barely enough to live on, I think is unrealistic expectation. So anything that that we can do to support the public health benefits all of society and all our communities.

Lorraine Rapp: Dr. Bowen, if someone in our listening audience does not have fluoride in their water, what is the best way to get it, especially for children?

Dr. Bowen: Well children at the age below two and younger should not be given fluoride, but after the age of two, they should consult their dentist and their physician about the optimum way to approach it. There are several possibilities, one of course is using fluoride tablets, which can be sucked and swallowed and that way you get both a systemic and a topical effect.....  Then you can also have topical fluoride put on by your dentist. So in general, young children should see the dentist from about the age of one and do it on a regular basis after that.

More of this interview can be heard on "Take Care," WRVO's health and wellness show, Sunday at 6:30 p.m.  Support for this story comes from the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York.