Taking care of our health is one of the biggest concerns of the 21st century.
When it comes to dental health care, the problems can be especially tough. There’s a nationwide shortage of dentists and Montana has slightly fewer dentists than the national average for its population. Montana is short on dental hygienists. Many Montanans with low incomes don’t have access to regular dental care.
These concerns have generated local and statewide dental summits over the past couple of years with health care professionals, educators, government leaders and other community members working together to solve dental gaps. One inescapable conclusion from these summits is that we have to do a better job of preventing tooth decay. One part of prevention is having optimal, cavity-preventing fluoride in public drinking water.
Having the optimal level of fluoride in drinking water is one of the most cost-effective steps a community can take to improve its citizens’ health.
Fluoride has been exhaustively researched since the first public water system added fluoride 50 years ago. Today, 62 percent of Americans live in communities with optimal fluoride. Some of those communities, such as the city of Great Falls, have enough naturally-occurring fluoride to get its full prevention benefit without any addition. Most communities have to supplement the natural fluoride levels.
In Billings, the Yellowstone River naturally has some fluoride, but it’s less than the optimal level. The right amount of fluoride is a tiny amount, about 1 part per million. That’s like one ounce in a 10,000 gallon swimming pool.
Saving on dental bills
Two studies published last year in the Journal of Public Health Dentistry and Community Dentistry and Oral Epidemiology reconfirmed that proper levels of fluoride save money and reduce cavities. First, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the University of Georgia found that in communities of more than 20,000 people, it typically cost about 50 cents per person to fluoridate the water. For every $1 invested in this preventive measure, the communities saved $38 in dental treatment costs.
In the other study, a CDC health economist found that 12-year-old children living in states where more than half of the communities have fluoridated water have 26 percent fewer decayed tooth surfaces per year than 12-year-old children living in states where less than one quarter of communities are fluoridated. Unfortunately, Montana falls into the “less-than-a-quarter-fluoridated” category.
Although that study looked at dental health in children, other research has shown that fluoride reduces the number of cavities for people of all ages. Proper levels of fluoride in drinking water benefit everyone who has teeth.
A community conversation about dental health is in order. We look for our Billings City Council to discuss the health benefits of fluoride in coming months. We call on everyone concerned about good health to support improving the health benefits of our public water system.
It makes sense to take advantage of this simple, cost-effective preventive measure as part of our efforts to stay healthy.