Residents of Coahoma County don’t get the amount of fluoride in tap water recommended by the state Health Department.
They join more than half of the state’s residents in that category.
Fluoride is a naturally occurring chemical put in public water supplies since the 1950s to help protect teeth from decay.
Between 0.8 and 1.2 parts per million is the recommended level of fluoridation, according to the Mississippi Department of Health.
Clarksdale Public Utilities General Manager Marvin Carraway said the city’s water contains a natural level of fluoride that’s about half of the recommended level.
“It’s not as high as the dental professionals would like,” he said. “Our average fluoride level, depending on the well, is 0.2 to 0.6 parts per million, so it’s about 50 percent to 75 percent of what’s ideal.”
Some two decades ago public hearings were held to determine whether additional fluoride should be added to the city’s water supply, said Carraway.
“Some people said, ‘That’s putting rat poison in our water,’ and the powers-that-be at the time decided that the agitation and the warfare between both sides wasn’t worth the expense of putting in the pumps and injectors needed to fluoridate the water.”
Dentist John Sullivan said Clarksdale is the largest municipality in Mississippi without fluoridation.
“It’s been that way for 15 years,” he said.
Sullivan was among local dentists who pushed the city board to add fluoride to Clarksdale’s water.
“I was a neophyte when I first got here 27 years ago, and the battle was already being fought. I’ve fought it twice now, and I’ve just given up,” said Sullivan. “But we really need it.”
Fluoride, according to Sullivan, bonds with growing bones and teeth faster than calcium, a major component in both. When it bonds with the growing enamel of a child’s tooth, it makes the enamel stronger and more resistant to acids produced by bacteria that live in the human mouth.
It is that acid which dissolves the protective enamel and allows the underlying layers of tooth to decay.
It is only effective in children because teeth stop growing as people approach adulthood.
Toothpaste containing fluoride helps, Sullivan said, but only affects the outside of the tooth.
Opponents of fluoridation, and they are legion, argue there is no proven benefit to fluoridation and that it can be dangerous.
One Internet web site maintained by the Fluoride Action Network lists “50 Reasons to Oppose Fluoridation.” The group contends that research showing fluoridation prevents cavities is flawed and that it is easy to receive an overdose of the chemical, resulting in a condition known as dental fluoridosis, which actually damages the teeth of growing children.
Clarksdale resident Loraine Smith was involved in the fluoride conflict that split the town a quarter-century ago.
“Physicians all over the country are still opposed to fluoridation, and so am I,” Smith said. “My bottom-line reason is no longer medical, but it is ridiculous to go through the expense of putting fluoride in the water that we water our lawns with, that we bathe in and wash our cars with.
“Clarksdale is an expensive place to live already, and it makes no sense financially to add another expense to our bill from the city. There are other ways for children to get fluoride.”
Carraway said there is no current plan to fluoridate the city’s water supply.
“There’s nothing we can do about the natural fluoride, but there’s no sense going to the expense of buying and installing all the equipment when 50 percent of the people don’t seem to want it,” he said.