Dentist Barbara Wehr would usually chalk it up to sweets and sugary beverages when a child came into her Dexter office with a mouthful of cavities. Most of these children were from the village, which Wehr assumed had optimal levels of fluoride in the municipal water supply.
Then one of her colleagues took a look at a general analysis of the village’s water. And suddenly chocolate and Coke were had some company on the dentist’s hit list.
The analysis showed that the village’s water supply only contains .38 parts per million fluoride, which is well below the recommended guideline of .7 to 1 parts per million.
Federal health agencies such as the Center for Disease Control and many statewide studies have proven that fluoride contributes to a community’s oral health and exposure to fluoridated water from birth is a key ingredient to healthy teeth.
Wehr was more than a little surprised at the report since prior to opening a practice in Dexter she worked on a summer grant program through the Michigan Department of Community Health. She conducted a phone-survey asking if the water served to Dexter customers was fluoridated, and the answer was “yes.”
After hearing about the report she commissioned two water tests of her own at the north and south end of the Dexter village water system, one from a kitchen sink at her own office and one from a residence in the 3500 block of Central Street.
The water from the tap at the Central Street home contained .32 parts per million fluoride and the water coming from Wehr’s own tap had .31 parts per million. Under .6 parts per million it is recommended to consult a dentist.
Despite being misled, Wehr says she still feels partly responsible for not catching on sooner.
“I feel bad about this – I’ve been kind of assuming that it’s the parents giving too much pop and candy to their kids,” she said.
Now she wants to make sure that everyone in Dexter, Chelsea and surrounding townships, as well as the county as a whole, are aware of the importance of fluoride. It’s also important to consult with a dentist about fluoride deficiency and get a prescription for daily fluoride tablets to supplement diets.
Those living around Ann Arbor in areas where water is provided for by the city, fluoride levels are safe. Chelsea also fluoridates their water and has done so for a long time, according to Chelsea Water Department Superintendent Ray Schmidt.
“I’ve been here for 17 years and they’ve been adding fluoride ever since,” Schmidt said. Fluoridation even predates city efforts to chlorinate the water against bacteria and other biological contaminants, which was started in the early 1990’s.
Most of the surrounding townships are on well water that more than likely contain naturally occurring fluoride similar to the village’s water. Sylvan Township has water service too, but calls to their water department went unanswered as of press time.
Dexter Utility Superintendent Ed Lobdell echoed what he told Wehr and what she heard during a meeting on village water service earlier this month.
“We don’t add fluoride (because) naturally occurring fluoride comes from the earth and rock formations,” Lobdell said. In response to Wehr being told that the water was fluoridated when she called in 1979, he said that hasn’t been the case since he started working for the village around that time.
Lobdell said the Village Manager Donna Dettling would make the Village Council aware of the concern and put it up to a vote on adding fluoride. He estimated it would cost several thousand dollars for the pumping equipment and the continual chemical cost.
The village is already facing the costs associated with establishing an equalization basin to remedy Inflow & Infiltration problems at the wastewater treatment plant during peak flows. The village is also in talks with the Dexter Community School district for a fifth well site on viable school-owned property off Shield Road.
Dettling says that the village will hire consulting firm Orchard Hiltz & McCliment to come up with a capital cost analysis.
Schmidt, calling fluoridation “one of the most cost effective public health measures,” said that he estimates the cost to Chelsea water customers as 54 cents per person per year to bring the fluoride level up to 1 part per million.
Based on the December 2007 SEMCOG census, Chelsea averaged 24 pounds of fluoride pumped per day with more in the summer months. The Chelsea Village Council passed the measure to fluoridate its water on Oct. 20, 1959, making them a forerunner to municipal water fluoridation.
Money well spent, Schmidt says, adding that some studies have shown as great as a 60 percent difference in decay levels between comparable communities with and without fluoride in the municipal water system that have partnered for studies.
In many cases the half of the community pairing participating in the study without fluoride in their water would immediately pass measures to fluoridate once the findings of those studies were made public.
Wehr and Schmidt both agree that getting fluoride into the diet of mothers during the fourth month and pregnancy and children up to age 10 is important as those are the most important months and years of oral development.
Robert Bagramian, a professor of dentistry at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry for periodontics and oral medicine, says that this is a very serious public health issue.
“This is sort of one of the most public health programs that’s ever come around,” Bagramian said. “Studies in the 40s and 50s were done and this has been instituted all around the world.”
He said that many studies, including one done involving Grand Rapids and Muskegon showed a 50 to 75 percent reduction in dental carries over a period of many years. Grand Rapids was given 1 part per million fluoride and Muskegon wasn’t.
The result: Muskegon wanted and did implement fluoridation of their water.
And with good cause too. The CDC estimates that for every dollar invested in fluoridation, people save $38 or more in treatment costs.
They also report that 170 million people or 67 percent of the population who drink from public water supplies are drinking fluoridated water. Of the 50 largest cities in the country, 43 of them are fluoridated.
For the time being Wehr is going to start recommending that everyone in the village get prescriptions for fluoride supplements. Anyone in a township on a well or other source of water who isn’t sure should give some thought to the fluoride levels in their water, and contact their dentist immediately.
The supplements are inexpensive, and the only real issue is the hassle of having a pill, or in some peoples’ case another pill, to keep track of every day.
“I would like to begin to get public awareness going,” Wehr said. “The naturally occurring amount isn’t nearly enough. If something isn’t done we’re going to continue to see toddlers show up with decay, which I think in a fluoridated area we wouldn’t see. I don’t know how it slipped by or why we didn’t catch it sooner, but it’s something that everybody needs to start thinking about.”