FLUORIDATION OF WATER is one of the great public health successes of the past 50 years. Voters in Worcester have an opportunity on Tuesday to bring this improvement in dental health to the residents of their community.

Fifty-seven percent of the people in Massachusetts have access to fluoridated water, but many are reluctant to treat their water supply, arguing that they ought to have the right to choose their own treatments. Worcester voters turned down fluoridation in 1996.

Yet this dental treatment is certified safe by public health authorities and is proven effective at reducing tooth decay, which can reach epidemic proportions unless preventive action is taken. Studies across the nation confirm the efficacy of fluoridated water.

Holyoke, for instance, began fluoridating its water in 1970. A study 11 years later found that cavities declined 27.5 percent among 14-year-old boys and 50 percent among 14-year-old girls. For 7-year-olds, who lived their whole lives in a fluoridated environment, the reduction was 84.1 percent. Children everywhere in Massachusetts ought to have the right to be protected against tooth decay.

Opponents contend that people seeking this treatment can brush their teeth with fluoridated paste, use a fluoride rinse or have their dentist paint their teeth with a fluoride solution. All true, but many people ignore simple dental hygiene, which probably explains why those teenage boys in Holyoke had a comparatively modest improvement in dental health. Many people who want to protect their teeth lack the money for regular check-ups.

Screenings at five Worcester schools this year and last found that 66 percent of second-graders had at least one cavity. These children need the benefits of fluoride now.

Despite the persistent efforts of dentists and public health officials, 167 communities with public water supplies still are without fluoride. A Yes vote in Worcester would send a strong message across the state that dental health is more important than unfounded fears.