The proper amount of fluoride in drinking water reduces dental decay. Bozeman, Chester, Colstrip, Hardin, Laurel, Miles City and Scobey add fluoride to public water systems to reach this optimal level. The city of Great Falls naturally has an optimal level of fluoride in its water because it occurs naturally in the Missouri River water.

But our state’s largest city lacks optimal fluoride. A small amount of fluoride occurs naturally in the Yellowstone River water at Billings. It would take a very small increase in the fluoride level to bring Billings to optimal tooth protection. In fact, optimal fluoride would cost the city of Billings about 39 cents a person. That’s 39 cents for an entire year of enhanced tooth protection. If you or a family member has paid for a tooth filling recently, compare your dental bill to the cost of optimal water fluoride. It’s inexpensive tooth protection.

And it’s effective. Fluoride in drinking water has been scientifically proven over more than 50 years to reduce dental caries by up to 60 percent in children and to reduce dental decay in adults by as much as 35 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and the American Dental Association.

Dental crisis

We are in a dental crisis. Fewer people are becoming dentists. There is a national shortage and Montana has fewer dentists than average. Our state is in great need of dental hygienists, too.

People with low incomes are having extreme difficulty getting basic dental care. Head Start recently had 85 preschoolers for whom neither parents nor the program had been able to obtain dental appointments.

St. Vincent Health Care saw 742 emergency patients in the past six months who needed emergency dentistry for serious health problems such as tooth infections. At Deaconess Billings Clinic, dental problems are the fifth leading cause of emergency department visits.

Several remedies are needed. A recently-forged partnership between the hospitals and the Yellowstone City-County Health Department should develop a full-time dental clinic that cares for indigent patients.

We must promote education on cavity prevention. (Topical fluoride in toothpaste compliments, but doesn’t replace the positive effects of systemic fluoride in drinking water.) We must encourage more young people into dental professions. And Medicaid must be changed to encourage rather than discourage caring professionals to get involved.

Better health

The simplest, fastest, most cost-effective step our community can take is to improve the fluoride level.

Billings water averages .4 parts per million fluoride —naturally, according to Carl Christensen, director of the water department.

Bringing the water supplies to constant optimal levels recommended for public dental health would mean adding a fraction of a part per million to the water at a cost of about $35,000 a year.

This is a solvable problem. Let’s work on it together. If good community health is important to you, tell your Billings City Council representatives to put optimal fluoride on the council agenda.