Trying to sort out who’s right and who’s wrong in the debate in Trenton on whether privately owned water companies should be required to fluoridate drinking water isn’t easy. But the burden of proof should rest with those who say it’s necessary.
The New Jersey Dental Association wants the state Public Health Council to write a regulation that would result in about half of the state’s residents having fluoride in their drinking water. Now, about 10 to 15 percent of the state’s water supply is fluoridated, one of the lowest rates in the nation.
The federal government, dentists and toothpaste manufacturers hail fluoridation as a miracle that has dramatically reduced the incidence of tooth decay. At a recent Public Health Council hearing, Dr. Frank Graham, past president of the New Jersey Dental Association, called fluoridation “one of the 10 greatest public-health achievements of the 20th century.” He pointed out that two-thirds of the nation has been drinking fluoridated water for decades. The Centers for Disease Control wants to achieve 75 percent fluoridation of the nation’s water supply by 2010.
Environmental groups, including the New Jersey Environmental Federation, regard fluoride as a health menace. They claim that the fluoride used in water supplies — a byproduct of phosphate fertilizer — is an “industrial grade” variant that contains arsenic, lead, mercury and other cancer-causing agents. They also say the fluoride people get from toothpastes, breakfast cereals and beverages bottled with fluoridated water is enough to protect teeth from decay.
Although New Jersey doesn’t supply data on the incidence of dental decay to the CDC as many other states do, there is no clear correlation elsewhere between rates of water fluoridation and rates of dental decay. Most European countries — where decay rates are similar to those in the United States — don’t fluoridate their water. And one that does, Ireland, is being pressured by a group of dentists to stop doing so, citing concerns about cancer risks and fluorosis — damage to tooth enamel caused by fluoride.
The Public Health Council is expected to vote on the proposed rule change this summer. It should vote no unless rule change proponents can demonstrate two things: that tooth decay in New Jersey is more common than in parts of the country where fluoridation rates are much higher, and that there is compelling evidence, based on New Jersey data, that residents need more fluoride than they are getting from other sources.
The dental association has pointed out that Trenton is the only city in the state with fluoridated water. In the absence of any recent studies on the impact of unfluoridated water in New Jersey on tooth decay, Trenton could be used as a control group. Its decay rate could be compared to that of a fluoride-free city with comparable demographics. If there is an information gap, it should be filled before the Public Health Council renders a decision.