Lafayette residents are not among the 36 percent of Louisiana residents who have access to drinking water containing fluoride, a group of compounds proven to help prevent cavities.

But that may change.

The state Legislature approved and Gov. Bobby Jindal recently signed into law Act 761, that requires Louisiana public water systems that serve 5,000 or more customers to add fluoride to drinking water.

That means 40,000 retail customers served by Lafayette Utilities System may one day be ingesting small amounts of fluoride every time they drink or cook with tap water.

“This reaches across all economic boundaries,” said Dr. Bill Keaty, a Lafayette pediatric dentist. “The people who probably will benefit the most are those who can’t afford to go to the dentist or don’t go to the dentist and are not aware of proper oral hygiene techniques.”

Adding fluoride to municipal drinking water is not just about preventing cavities. It’s about preventing infections that can take lives.

“The same blood that goes to your teeth goes all around your body. It can infect your heart, your eyes and anything else,” said Lafayette dentist Dr. Raphael Baranco, a former Lafayette Parish School Board member.

In the past year or two, a couple of boys died from the consequences of tooth decay that went untreated, said Dr. Howard Pollick, American Dental Association spokesperson on fluoridation. A Maryland boy developed a brain abscess when bacteria from untreated tooth decay got into his blood stream, he said.

Not everyone agrees that fluoridated drinking water is a good thing.

The Fluoride Action Network opposes the practice while the Environmental Working Group wants additional research. They argue that too much fluoridation is harmful.

They cite reports that suggest fluoridated water can lead to the ingestion of too much fluoride, which may be linked to thyroid, dental and bone problems, for starters.

“None of those things have ever been substantiated,” Lafayette pediatric dentist Dr. John Hendry said.

What has been proven with more than 50 years of practice and research is that fluoridated water reduces tooth decay by 50 percent to 60 percent, he said.

Every water system in the state that serves 5,000 or more customers must submit to the state by March 1, 2009, an estimate of how much they think it will cost to purchase and install fluoridation equipment.

LUS Director Terry Huval said his staff is working on that estimate.

Act 761 states that utilities are not required to move ahead with fluoridation unless the state identifies sufficient funds to cover those costs.

From a medical standpoint, fluoridated water systems will save Louisiana taxpayers money by reducing the amount taxpayer dollars are used for indigent dental treatments and other medical problems, Randy Hayden, public relations consultant with the American Dental Association, said.

The new law also allows residents to opt out of fluoridation through a petition signed by at least 15 percent of registered voters and a municipal election.