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The Mineral That Reduces Oral Health Disparities

By Deborah Foote

February is Children’s Dental Health Month, an opportune time to celebrate the strides we have made in preventing cavities through community water fluoridation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has praised water fluoridation as one of “ten great public health achievements of the 20th century.”

Fluoride exists naturally in nearly all water supplies. Water is “fluoridated” when a public water system adjusts the fluoride to a level known to prevent tooth decay. As of 2012, an estimated 72 percent of Coloradans served by public water systems use fluoridated water.

Research continues to show both short- and long-term benefits of fluoridation. A 2010 study found that the fluoridated water consumed as a young child makes the loss of teeth (due to decay) much less likely even 40 or 50 years later. A 2010 study in Nevada examined teenagers’ dental health and found that living in a community without fluoridated water was one of the top three factors associated with high rates of decay and other dental problems.

Additionally, water fluoridation also helps to improve oral health for people of all income levels and racial/ethnic backgrounds. A 2002 study called water fluoridation “the most effective and practical method” for reducing the difference in tooth decay rates by socioeconomic status.

As a result of decades worth of findings, the leading health and medical organizations support water fluoridation. This list includes the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Dental Association, the Institute of Medicine and the American Academy of Family Physicians.

Fluoridation also saves money. Research shows that every dollar invested in water fluoridation produces savings of $38. This money is saved by families and taxpayers through avoiding fillings and other dental treatments. Here in Colorado, researchers estimated that in 2003, nearly $149 million in unnecessary dental costs were avoided by fluoridating public water supplies—an average savings of nearly $61 per resident.

Anti-fluoride activists have no evidence proving that fluoride is harmful at the level used for fluoridating water. Such claims have long been made, but the science simply doesn’t back them up. Fluoridation is a smart public health strategy—even today, when nearly everyone brushes with fluoride toothpaste.

At a time when more than 100 million Americans lack dental insurance, fluoridation offers an easy, inexpensive prevention strategy from which everyone benefits—simply by turning on their tap.

Learn about the health equity issues affecting Coloradans at Collective Colorado, a publication of The Colorado Trust.