GRAND RAPIDS — Our city became the first in the country to add fluoride to its municipal water system 67 years ago today, a public health triumph quickly duplicated elsewhere despite Cold War hysteria that fluoridation was part of a communist plot to poison the water supply.
Today, more than two-thirds of public water systems use fluoridation to promote healthy teeth.
Wired Magazine today featured Grand Rapids’ role in what the Centers for Disease Control named one of the nation’s 10 great public health achievements of the previous 100 years.
The City Commission voted to approve the fluorine study in August 1944 and, six months later, on Jan. 25, sodium fluoride application began at the red-brick Monroe Avenue Water Filtration Plant.
City chemist W.L. Harris noted at the time that a total of 107 barrels holding 375 pounds of fluoride arrived in the city by train the day before.
Before the fluoridation began, 32,000 city school children, plus control groups of 8,000 kids in Muskegon and Aurora, Ill., were given complete dental examinations. After eight years, the Grand Rapids kids showed reductions of 50 to 70 percent in tooth decay rates.
The Wired article, reprinted from 2008, notes that opposition to fluoridation continues to persist, thanks largely to the Internet.
“Roughly 170 million Americans drink fluoridated water today, and statistics show that dental health in the United States has improved dramatically as a direct result of it. But, aided partly by the internet’s long reach, there is continuing resistance. Opponents of fluoridation point to newer studies that link it to osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer. Some dentists question the need to keep fluoridating water, because most modern toothpastes contain fluoride, which is itself controversial. Institutions such as the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Family Physicians continue to maintain that the overall risks are minimal and that these new claims are exaggerated.”
In Grand Rapids, the city’s system provides fluoridated water to the city and suburban communities. The city briefly considered dropping the pioneering program in 2008 over concerns about long-term effects from what many consider a toxic chemical.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced a proposed reduction in the recommended fluoride level to 0.7 milligrams per liter of water, a move that was supported by the West Michigan Dental Society.