Seven years after the state mandated communities with more than 5,000 population to fluoridate their water systems, more than 60 percent of Louisiana’s residents still do not have fluoride in their drinking water.
The state legislature passed the Community Water Fluoridation Act in 2008. But the mandate is conditional on the state providing funds for the engineering, procurement and construction of the required facilities, as well as the fluoride chemical for the first six months of operation.
Very little state funding has yet been found for those capital investments, which can be quite sizeable.
Hays Owen, senior vice president and chief administrative officer of the Baton Rouge Water Co., notes there are over 80 water wells throughout the Baton Rouge service area without a fluoridation system.
“It’s a huge number of connections, and no state funding,” he said.
It’s been estimated it would cost Baton Rouge Water Co. and its independent subsidiary, Parish Water Co., $4.6 million and $3.8 million, respectively, to provide fluoridation to the city of Baton Rouge and to the parish.
While Baton Rouge is without fluoridated water, New Orleans and the town of Walker in Livingston Parish do have water fluoridation systems.
The city of Baker has sufficient naturally occurring fluoride, according to the state Department of Health and Hospitals.
And with the help of a $100,000 grant from DHH, the city of Gonzales now is adding fluoride to the last of its three water wells that didn’t have it.
The move to fluoridate the Gonzales water supply, which has 3,000 water connections serving approximately 10,000 residents, began decades ago.
“From what I’ve been told by old-timers, dentists went to the mayor” at the time and asked for fluoride in the city’s water many years ago, Gonzales City Engineer Jackie Baumann said.
Baumann said the addition of fluoride to the water, proven to improve dental health, in two of Gonzales’ three water wells predates the 1970s.
Community fluoridation, which began in the U.S. in the 1940s, boosts the mineral fluoride that occurs naturally in the water in some places in the country.
Most of the water supplies in Louisiana don’t have naturally occurring fluoride, and Gonzales is one of them, Baumann said.
“We test ‘raw’ water (that hasn’t been fluoridated) every so often, and it’s not in it,” she said.
For infants, whose teeth are developing, fluoride is deposited into the surface of the tooth, making it stronger. For people of all ages, fluoride helps repair or remineralize the enamel of the tooth.
There are manufactured items made with fluoride, such as oral care products and foods and beverages made with fluoridated water.
Parents can also ask their children’s pediatric dentists about a dental fluoride varnish or fluoride drops.
But fluoridated water is said by many experts to be the simplest way to get it. The daily requirement for maintaining dental health is a few milligrams of fluoride a day.
“Community water fluoridation is the single most effective public health care measure to prevent tooth decay,” said Annett Droddy, assistant executive director of the Louisiana Dental Association.
Fluoride in community water, however, isn’t as common as one might think, mostly because of its prohibitive cost and sometimes because of community resistance. Some concerns have touched on government conspiracy theories, questions about the scientific research and people who want to make their own decision on whether their families should drink fluoridated water.
Dr. C.J. Richard Jr., a dentist who practices in Walker and who has served many years on the state’s Fluoridation Advisory Board, says the level of fluoride in the water that gives optimum protection is 0.7 parts per million in this part of the country.
In the North, it’s a little higher, he said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “tried to take into account that we drink more water in the South” because of the heat, Richard said.
He was part of an advisory board in Walker that 20 years ago began working toward fluoridating their water, beginning with a general education program for the public about the benefits of fluoride.
The work was completed for the city’s three wells a little over three years ago with the help of a state grant.
“We joined some of the biggest municipalities nationwide in having a fluoridated system,” Richard said.
The state’s recent grant to Gonzales was made through DHH’s Oral Health Program.
“By fluoridating local water systems, we can reduce the risk of tooth decay in children and adults by approximately 25 percent,” DHH Secretary Kathy Kliebert said.