Rotten teeth, teeth with holes, green teeth, inflamed gums, bleeding gums, abscesses — retired dental hygienist Helen DiMenna spent 33 years peering into people’s mouths.
It was scary.
“Ever had an abscessed tooth?” she asked. “There’s no place for it to drain. The pressure — you want to jump off the Ambassador Bridge.”
Children whose teeth were decaying — “there were many. There were so many,” she said.
DiMenna was one of the first dental hygienists hired at the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit in 1966. She’d been awarded a bursary by the health unit to study at the University of Toronto Faculty of Dentistry. She also worked in several dentists’ offices. She helped found the St. Clair College dental hygiene program and the Windsor Essex County Dental Hygienists Society.
For 10 years, when she worked for the health unit, she examined the teeth of children in kindergarten, Grades 2, 4 and 6 and all special education classes at 100 schools. Tens of thousands of kids.
“I know what I saw,” she said.
What she saw was that before fluoride was added to drinking water, most children had tooth decay. After fluoride was added to drinking water — strengthening teeth and making them more resistant to decay — fewer children had tooth decay.
For 33 years, DiMenna fought those who fought fluoride. Now 74 and retired, she’s been writing letters to local governments for 16 years, starting when Tecumseh considered a referendum on fluoridation in 2003, and every time the debate has erupted since then.
“I have nothing to gain personally by writing this letter,” she told former Tecumseh mayor Ed Renaud in her first letter in 2003. “I just have a lot of valuable information to share …”
Last December, five years after Windsor’s city council voted to stop fluoridating water, it did the right thing. It reversed its decision. Now, Tecumseh and LaSalle, which get their water from Windsor, must vote again, too. They have a chance to make it right, too.
So do I. Five years ago, I supported stopping fluoridation. Now, I don’t. I’m not comfortable forcing everyone to ingest a chemical. But, like DiMenna, I know what I’ve seen — the evidence. The health unit screened 18,179 children from 119 schools here in 2016 and 2017. Here’s what it found.
The number of children with tooth decay or needing urgent care had jumped 51 per cent.
Seven-year-olds have an average of two-and-a-half cavities.
The number of children needing urgent care was twice that of the rest of Ontario. More than 70 per cent of the province fluoridates water.
And here is what the experts — dentists — told council.
Some children have such severe tooth decay that they must be put under anesthesia in a hospital to treat it, said Dr. Charles Frank. He’s already booking hospital care in 2020.
“I just can’t keep up,” he said.
All the while, health and dental officials had been distributing tens of thousands of leaflets and cards on how to care for your teeth and showing a video on dental care at movie theatres, recreation centres, libraries and fast food restaurants. Almost 10,000 bags with more information plus toothbrushes, toothpaste and floss were distributed.
The health unit applied topical fluoride to more children. It hired a part-time pediatric dentist.
The Downtown Mission opened a dental centre and provided more than $40,000 in free care in the first 120 days. An Ontario government program providing free care to eligible children was expanded.
Despite all this, our oral health still declined. That decline hit many people regardless of how much money or insurance they have. But it hit the vulnerable — children from low socioeconomic backgrounds — the hardest.
The health unit’s first recommendation? Fluoridate the water.
It’s not the only answer. But it’s the answer that will reach everyone, regardless of means. And it’s supported by every reputable medical, dental and health organization, from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the Canadian Medical Association and Canadian Dental Association.
Ironically, DiMenna lives in Kingsville, which is served by Union Water, which doesn’t fluoridate. So she gave her children a vitamin with fluoride every day.
But, she told Renaud in that 2003 letter, “not everyone has a mother who is a dental hygienist.”
Resuming fluoridation is only the first step. Everyone who can’t afford dental care should have access to it. Period.
DiMenna never looked at this issue as just teeth. It’s health.
“What’s the difference between pain and infection anywhere in your body and pain and infection in your mouth?” she asked.
*Original article online at https://windsorstar.com/news/local-news/jarvis-the-fluoride-debate-i-know-what-i-saw