How can a public utility buck a national trend in health care? Unfortunately, folks served by Parkland Light & Water are about to find out as that system moves toward no longer fluoridating its water supply.

Prevention is the focus in health care now as a way of keeping health care costs at least somewhat under control. That makes sense: Spending a little up front to prevent ailments can often prevent having to spend much more later to treat those conditions.

Fluoridation of public water supplies is one of the most important preventive steps that can be taken; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks it as one of the 10 most valuable public health measures of the past century. By reducing tooth decay by about 25 percent, fluoridation benefits all but is particularly helpful for low-income residents and senior citizens on fixed incomes — two groups least likely to have regular dental care.

Dental problems keep children out of school and are a major reason why uninsured people visit hospital emergency rooms. Compare the average cost of fluoridation – between 50 cents and $1 per person per year – to the cost of cavities. Delta Dental research shows that the cost to maintain a single molar cavity is $2,187 over a person’s lifetime.

The Parkland utility’s board decided to discontinue fluoridation after 10 years in order to save $70,000 a year and in response to some in the community who oppose the supplement. Its decision is a shortsighted one that flies in the face of science, common sense and public health. According to the CDC, community water fluoridation is safe and cost-efficient, with every $1 spent saving about $38 in dental treatment costs. In Parkland, the $70,000 annual cost breaks down to less than 25 cents per person per month in the service area.

Almost 75 percent of Americans are served by water supplies that contain enough fluoride to protect teeth. Many children in those communities reach adulthood without a single cavity, while dentists usually can tell when patients grew up with unfluoridated water because of their many cavities. Although fluoridation cuts into dentists’ income by reducing tooth decay, the American Dental Association strongly supports it. So do the surgeon general, the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

About 100 million Americans don’t have access to fluoridated water. By summer’s end, Parkland residents will be added to their ranks — unless the water board reverses its decision.

Unfortunately, that utility isn’t the only one in the South Sound denying its customers the benefits of fluoridation. In 2004, Lakewood voters approved fluoridating their water supply, but Lakewood Water District commissioners refused to abide by the election results. Lakewood residents wanting their teeth protected must get their own fluoride treatments.

An ounce of prevention apparently isn’t worth much in some communities.