On July 6, 2008, Gov. Bobby Jindal signed Act No. 761 into law. Known as the Louisiana Community Water Fluoridation Act, the legislation mandated that water systems with over 5,000 connections throughout the state add fluoride to their water supply with the purpose of protecting Louisianans’ dental health.
“This was a fairly significant statement by the state that community water fluoridation is an important public health issue,” Ward Blackwell, executive director of the Louisiana Dental Association, tells Business Report in a feature from the current issue.
But Act No. 761 was an unfunded mandate, specifying that public water systems—of which there are about 1,400 in the state—only must comply if sufficient funds, provided by the Legislature, grants or other state-identified funds, exist to cover the cost of engineering, acquiring and installing fluoridation treatment equipment, and maintenance of designated fluoride levels for at least six months.
At the same time the water fluoridation requirements became law, however, the financial crisis was taking hold. Coupled with more recent falling energy prices, the state began facing significant budget shortfalls. Opportunities for funding the Community Water Fluoridation Act dried up.
So although more than seven years have passed since community water fluoridation became a requirement in Louisiana, the state has made little progress in providing fluoridated drinking water. Today, just 43% of Louisianans live in a community that fluoridates its water—about the same percentage as when the bill passed.
“We went through a lot to get the bill passed, but we’ve never been able to get the Legislature to appropriate any funding to help local communities,” says C.J. Richard Jr., a general dentist in Walker.
Given the state’s current budget woes, identifying funding anytime soon remains unlikely, Richard adds.
“From a budgetary standpoint, Louisiana is really hurting. It’s hard to go to the Legislature when everyone else is also asking for money and we’re seeing deep cuts in things such as higher education,” he says.
Although some areas in Baton Rouge have sufficient levels of natural fluoridation, most of the city’s water supply is not fluoridated. Fluoridating a single well can cost from $38,000 to $50,000. If a water system has a coordinated infrastructure, such as a single water-treatment facility, the cost is minimal. However, the Baton Rouge metro area’s water comes from more than 60 wells, so the cost to fluoridate would run in the millions. East Baton Rouge Parish’s two major water companies estimated the cost would be $8.5 million.
“That makes it a very expensive proposition in Baton Rouge,” Blackwell says.