ISLAND FALLS, Maine — Many Maine communities add fluoride to their public water system to help residents enhance their oral health.
But voters in Island Falls will decide next week whether they want to continue to pay to do so.
Residents will go to the polls on Wednesday, Sept. 9, to vote on a referendum question addressing whether or not to continue the current practice of water fluoridation. Voting will take place at the Municipal Building from 2 to 6 p.m.
Fluoride is a naturally occurring substance, and small amounts of fluoride are present in all water sources. In some communities, including Island Falls, water system managers add some fluoride to the water supply to help prevent tooth decay. Fluoride levels of 0.7 to 1.2 parts per million in public water are considered safe and effective levels, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Town Clerk Cheryl McNally said Thursday that the Island Falls Board of Selectmen wanted to present the idea of discontinuing water fluoridation as a cost-cutting measure. McNally did not have figures immediately available to determine how much the town now spends for water fluoridation.
“We held a meeting about this late last month and presented information on both the pros and the cons to people,” said McNally. “People asked questions and they talked to the selectmen about it. There was not a lot of controversy, people are just weighing the facts.”
McNally said that some residents expressed resistance, but noted that they were employed by or connected to local dentists.
“There is conflicting information out there about whether it is really beneficial to offer this service,” she said. “We just want people to get educated about the issue before the vote.”
Approximately 125 towns and cities in the state add fluoride to their water, according to the latest figures available from the Maine CDC.
The agency contends that fluoride protects teeth by strengthening the tooth structure and helping to prevent decay, even reaching teeth that are still forming. They also state that fluoride can help reverse early decay.
The Maine CDC maintains that everyone benefits from fluoridated water, especially those who don’t have dental insurance or can’t afford it, and those who do not have access to a dentist. A lack of dentists in Aroostook County causes some residents to have to drive out of the area for dental care.
Earlier this week, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins announced that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had awarded the Maine Department of Health and Human Services an $840,000 grant to help improve access to oral health care by strengthening the dental work force in Maine’s rural and underserved communities.
Collins cited statistics pointing out that, in Maine, there is one general practice dentist for every 2,300 people in the Portland area. In Aroostook County there is only one dentist for every 5,500 people.
The Maine CDC also agrees with scientific evidence showing that fluoridation of community water supplies is safe and effective. The safety of fluoridated water has been studied for more than 60 years, according to the agency’s Web Site.
Some research studies have questioned the effectiveness of fluoride in preventing tooth decay.
In 2007, Caries Research, a journal devoted to research on tooth decay, reported that even when fluoridated water is the most consumed item, cavities are extensive in low-income Americans when their diets are bad. Researchers studied low-income African-American adults, 14 years old and over, living in Detroit, Mich., where water suppliers added fluoride chemicals to water to prevent cavities. Despite the fluoridation, 83 percent of the affected population had severe tooth decay, with diets high in sugars and fats and low in fruits and vegetables.
Similarly, an Australian study published in Community Dentistry and Oral Epidemiology in 2004 indicated that 4,800 Australian 10- to 15-year-olds had similar cavity rates whether they drank fluoridated water or not.
McNally said she is not sure how individual selectmen feel about the issue, stressing that they only wanted to put the issue out there to give residents a cost-cutting option.
Seven area dentists, including five from Houlton and two from Patten and East Millinocket, spoke out in favor of continuing the use of fluoride in the water in a letter to the editor printed in Houlton’s weekly newspaper. The dentists said they recognized the necessity of cutting costs during tough economic times, but stressed that “the best way to protect teeth from decay is by drinking and cooking with public water to which fluoride has been added.”
The dentists maintained that people who live in towns without fluoride in their water visit the dentist more often and need more expensive dental treatments.