WITHOUT WATER fluoridation, Ireland would have levels of dental decay as high as those of eastern Europe, according to a Cork researcher, who is regarded as one of the world experts in the field of oral health.
Prof Helen Whelton, director of the Oral Health Services Research Centre, UCC, has said that while tooth decay in Ireland is much lower than it would be without a national fluoridation programme, it could be lower if children brushed their teeth twice daily.
“Fluoridation is extremely important in this country in preventing dental decay as we have quite poor eating and dental care habits. If we did not have fluoridated water, we would be at eastern European levels of dental decay,” she said.
Prof Whelton has just received an international award from the European Organisation for Caries Research (ORCA) in recognition of her outstanding contributions to the field of dental caries research.
She received the 2008 Zsolnay prize at the annual congress of ORCA in the Netherlands.
Prof Whelton pointed out that while Ireland could be expected to be on a par with the UK in terms of dental hygiene levels, only about 58 per cent of 15-year-olds in the Republic brush their teeth twice a day, compared to over 80 per cent of their peers in the UK.
“Twenty years ago, tooth brushing in the UK was at the same level as our 15-year-olds are at today. There is certainly something in the culture that we are not addressing specifically.”
She said Ireland is extremely fortunate to be the only country in Europe with a national water fluoridation programme as the problems tooth decay would cause in the absence of such a programme would be far more serious.
“The risk of fluoridation is that if too much is taken in children under the age of three years as teeth are being formed, it can cause fluorosis. Fluorosis is actually caused by young children swallowing the water. Although our brushing habits are not good enough yet, many parents particularly middle class parents, are starting to brush their children’s teeth at a young age.”
Prof Whelon said parents should not use fluoride toothpaste on children under two, but they should ensure that children older than two brush twice a day with a pea-size amount of fluoride toothpaste.
She explained that mild fluorosis is characterised by fine white lines or patches on the teeth, while more severe cases of the condition can cause tooth deformity.
However, she pointed out that severe fluorosis is not seen in people who have grown up in Ireland – where water fluoridation has been in place since the 1960s.
Prof Whelton has been the principal investigator in many large-scale epidemiological studies, including clinical trials and water fluoridation studies. Her research includes the measurement of fluoride and dental fluorosis and she is regarded as one of the world experts in this field.