SOUTH BEND — Noting that adding fluoride to drinking water helps prevent tooth decay in both children and adults, the county Health Department is asking that the towns of Lakeville, North Liberty, and Walkerton start doing so again, and soon.
In a press release issued Thursday, the department noted that fluoride “has been shown to reduce the number of cavities in children by up to 60 percent,” and that it also reduces the number of cavities in adults, when added to public drinking water.
The department added that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers fluoridation one of the “10 Greatest Public Health Achievements of the 20th Century,” and that it is endorsed by “all of the leading public and dental health organizations,” including the American Dental Association.
“We can’t reverse the tremendous advances in dental health and the associated overall health and well-being that have been achieved over the last 60 years by adding fluoride to drinking water,” county Health Officer Dr. Thomas Felger said, adding, “I do not believe the town councils were provided with best scientific and medical information prior to making their decisions.”
The town councils in Lakeville, Walkerton, and North Liberty, separately and independently, voted to stop adding fluoride to the drinking water in those towns back in the spring, but for different reasons.
In Lakeville and North Liberty, it came down to money.
“It was not us trying to say (fluoride) is healthy or unhealthy,” said Jayson Kincaid, president of the North Liberty Town Council. “It just came down to dollars and cents.”
The cost to build, operate, and maintain a municipal water system is shouldered by water customers.
According to Kincaid, North Liberty did not want to pass the additional cost on to its water customers after Walkerton, with whom the town had formerly bought fluoride in bulk, decided to stop adding the substance to its water.
“When that community stopped, it became very expensive,” Kincaid said, adding, “If the state or county wants to step in and help us purchase (fluoride) in bulk again … maybe we’ll put it back in the water.”
The decision to stop adding fluoride to the drinking water in Lakeville is expected to save water customers there a combined $2,000 or so a year, according to Martha Tyler, president of the town council.
“I know it doesn’t sound like a lot, but we’re a small town and we’re trying to keep our (water) rates low,” Tyler said.
Tyler said the town looked at the pros and cons of adding or not adding fluoride to its drinking water, and that it decided it would be OK to stop.
She added that the local school corporation, Union-North United, still adds fluoride to its drinking water, “so we knew the children in the community would still be getting fluoride.”
Lakeville and North Liberty provide drinking water to a combined 1,000 or so customers.
Too much fluoride?
Walkerton, for its part, stopped adding fluoride to its drinking water because of a fear of overexposure to the mineral, according to Karol Jackson, president of the town council.
Walkerton provides drinking water to about 850 customers.
“Back when fluoride started, it was something that wasn’t readily available, and now it is,” Jackson said.
She added that, like Union-North United, John Glenn Schools, which includes Walkerton and North Liberty, also adds fluoride to its drinking water.
“It’s also in toothpaste,” she said, “and some naturally occurs in the groundwater — not at the recommended level, but that level’s always changing.”
Felger, for his part, said fears of too much fluoride in drinking water are unfounded.
“That argument is spurious. There have been a few incidences of too much fluoride, which can cause health problems,” he said, “but it’s not been from adding fluoride, but from natural fluoride.”
And although some areas of the country do have very high natural levels of fluoride, St. Joseph County is not one of them, he said. In fact, the county has very low levels of fluoride in its groundwater, he said.
Regarding cost, Felger said fluoride is actually fairly cheap, especially considering the tremendous health benefits that come with adding it to water.
“The figures I’ve been given (by the state Department of Health), if you look at just kids, it costs about $1 to $2 per kid, per year, so it should not in any sense be any huge amount of money for a town,” he said.
“And it’s pretty clear,” he added, “that the money saved is going to be spent by somebody else, eventually, just in dental care.”
Felger encouraged parents in Lakeville, North Liberty, and Walkerton to consult with a doctor about an appropriate fluoride supplement.
In the meantime, he said, he hopes each of the three town councils reconsiders its decision to stop adding fluoride to the drinking water.
“The benefits are overwhelming,” he said.
For now, at least, Tyler, Kincaid, and Jackson said they are keeping an open mind about the situation.
“I don’t think we’ve closed the book on this,” Jackson said. “It isn’t something where the town says, “This is it, and we’re never going to look at it again.’ If dentists start to say, ‘Oh, my goodness, we’re seeing a great, dramatic problem of decaying teeth,’ then we may look at it.”
For more information on fluoridation, including which cities and towns in the area do and do not add fluoride to their drinking water (Notre Dame is one), visit online at www.cdc.gov/fluoridation/65_years.htm