Based on screenings at schools, Parsons USD 503 has the second-highest rate of untreated tooth decay. That was one of the reasons cited by a group of local dentists during Monday evening’s city commission meeting why the city should re-start its fluoridation of the public water supply.
“Fluoride alone does not stop tooth decay, but it is one tool that helps in its prevention,” Dr. John Siebrasse told commissioners during their regular meeting.
Siebrasse was the main spokesman for all of the local dentists, including Drs. Barry Heavrin, Justin Ebersole, Joe Wommack and Ron Findley. All but Ebersole attended Monday’s meeting. Siebrasse said Ebersole had to be out of state. The dentists had invited Pam Smith of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to join them on Monday to answer questions regarding fluoride, but Siebrasse said she declined to attend because as a KDHE employee she can’t speak in favor or opposition of fluoridation. She had heard there will be a petition circulated in opposition of the city adding fluoride to water, Siebrasse said. She would, however, come at the invitation of the commission to give scientific evidence on water fluoridation.
The city discontinued the decades-long practice of adding fluoride at the water treatment plant in 2013 because of corrosion in piping at the point where fluoride and caustic soda were added. The city later replaced the elbow pipe where the corrosion occurred and continued adding caustic soda, which is necessary, but never re-introduced fluoride, which promotes healthy teeth but is not mandated by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
The commission agreed to have an engineering firm design plans to relocate the fluoride ejection point, but higher priorities and a high cost delayed the project.
On Feb. 20 the commission approved a grant application that could pay for up to $30,000 of the project. If approved the commission would have to seek bids on the project in June.
Siebrasse said tooth decay is the most common chronic childhood disease — five times more prevalent than asthma, four times more common than early-childhood obesity and 20 times more prevalent than diabetes. Early childhood caries (cavities) are disproportionately concentrated among socially disadvantaged children, especially those who qualify for Medicaid coverage.
Siebrasse said Shelly Martin, superintendent of Parsons USD 503, has said that 70 percent of the students in Parsons are in the free or reduced lunch program. He said national averages show that 80 percent of cavities come from 7 percent of the population — the lower socioeconomic and minority sector.
Additionally Siebrasse said the city had been adding fluoride to its water since the early 1960s, but since 2004, according to KDHE, the city has not had the level of fluoride considered to be therapeutic. No one could explain during the meeting why the city hadn’t reached the therapeutic level even when the fluoride program was running.
Siebrasse also gave the commission a packet of information including data from KDHE, a list of over 100 national and other organizations that favor fluoridation and studies showing community water fluoridation offers perhaps the greatest return on investment of any public health strategy.
“I can tell you that national statistics show $1 spent fluoridating water is usually worth about $38 of dental care, so you can use that as a yardstick,” Siebrasse said.
Siebrasse cited statistics showing students in Arkansas City and Salina, cities that have fluoridated water, have much lower rates of tooth decay. Wichita, which doesn’t fluoridate its water, was near the top with Parsons, he said.
Mayor Tom Shaw, perhaps playing devil’s advocate as he has spoken in favor of fluoridation, asked Siebrasse about potential problems with kidney disease or other ailments that can be caused by adding fluoride to the drinking supply.
Siebrasse said he has heard all kinds of ailments supposedly related to fluoridation, but the American Cancer Society say there is no validity to statements that it causes cancer, and the American Kidney Foundation also has said there is no relationship between kidney disease and fluoridation.
Most of the research people use against fluoridation, Siebrasse said, is antidotal, and he can’t fight that.
Nora Winslow of Parsons provided antidotal evidence against fluoridation. She said she is allergic to fluoride and that it causes her pain. She is allergic to some food as well. She can avoid those foods, but she must drink water every day.
Siebrasse said local dentists would make much more money if fluoridation is not continued, but their ethics tell them they need to speak in favor of fluoride in the water.
“If we can prevent something from happening, it is so much better for the patient,” Siebrasse said.
Dr. Joe Wommack spoke about the argument some use against fluoridation and one brought up by Shaw — that it is forced medication of the public. He said fluoride is not a medication, but a naturally occurring element.
Raven Martinez of Parsons, however, disagreed. She said fluoridation is forced medication because an absence of fluoride doesn’t itself cause cavities. Therefore, fluoride acts as a medication. Martinez said no cities force vitamin D or C upon people by adding them to water. She also said the American Dental Association in 2007 warned parents not to use fluoridated water in formula for children under 1 year old. Siebrasse was unaware of that and said he would have to look into it before answering questions from Martinez.
Findley said the dentists didn’t attend the meeting to try to force anything, only to inform the commissioners about the benefits of fluoride so they can make an intelligent decision when the time comes. Obviously, all of the dentists favor fluoridation, he said.
Ted Sears of Parsons said if the city decides to re-start the fluoridation program, it must ensure that fluoride is distributed evenly throughout the community. He said calcium and lime building up city lines would allow fluoride to coagulate with it. The fluoride could then break loose, causing an uneven distribution.