CORNISH — Debbie McKnight remembers boasting as a child to classmates in neighboring Lewiston that she had no cavities.
“They thought that was pretty cool. I nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah’d them right to death,” says Mc- Knight, now 42 and the mother of three children who, like their mother, have nearly cavity-free teeth.
McKnight believes there is a reason for her family’s pearly whites: It is the naturally fluoridated water in Cornish, a northern Utah town of 236 people just south of the Idaho border and 24 miles northwest of Logan.
Cornish — like 18 other communities and water systems in Utah — has enough fluoride leaching from rocks into well and spring water to meet the U.S. Public Health Service’s suggested level to prevent tooth decay.
Byron Kelley, a dentist in Pres- ton, Idaho, for nearly 24 years, says he long has noticed a difference among his patients from nearby Cornish.
“They have very little tooth decay compared to people from surrounding areas,” Kelley says.
While counties and cities elsewhere in Utah gear up for rancorous debates and public votes on whether to fluoridate their water, these 19 towns and water systems with naturally occurring fluoride — from Snowville in the north to Santa Clara in the south — can rest easy.
“We don’t have to worry about it,” says Cornish Mayor Dyer Pitcher, a lifelong resident who was a young man serving a church mission before he had his first cavity.
For years, fluoride has been at the root of heated ballot battles in Utah. In 1976, voters rejected a state Health Department push to fluoridate water statewide. A law passed soon afterward forbade adding fluoride to water supplies without a vote of the people.
Pro-fluoride forces gradually have chipped away at the opposition, though. In recent years, they have persuaded the Legislature to let the largest counties — Salt Lake, Davis, Weber and Utah — hold countywide fluoridation elections rather than deciding the issue city by city.
While Davis and Weber county commissions still are considering whether to put fluoride on November’s ballot, Utah County’s commission has rejected the idea and the Salt Lake County Commission is awaiting the results of a petition drive to force a ballot measure.
Two Cache County cities — Logan and Nibley — have scheduled fluoridation votes this November.
The latest push was bolstered by polls showing support for fluoridation. The campaign is being waged by Utahns for Better Dental Health, comprised of medical and public health professionals as well as parents.
They point to the state’s low fluoridation rate — less than 3 percent of its drinking water — as the reason Utah children have 40 percent more tooth decay than their counterparts in other states, as measured by Medicaid records.
Only two cities — Brigham City and Helper — and Hill Air Force Base add fluoride to their water supplies.
Although fluoridation fans have 50 years of research and the medical establishment on their side touting fluoride as safe and effective, foes claim science soon will prove what they have been arguing for years: that fluoride added to the water supply is a poison that can cause brittle bones and increased lead levels in children’s blood.
Fluoridation opponents also contend that naturally occurring fluoride, like that found in Cornish, is not the same as the fluoride blended into water supplies.
Most fluoridated communities add the basic element in the form of silicofluorides, which opponents say makes it more toxic. Chemists counter that it makes no difference how the fluoride is delivered.
“Your body doesn’t know the difference,” says Karen Zinner, a data analyst who has worked for the state Health Department’s oral-health program for nearly 20 years. Just as the body doesn’t know whether it gets nutrients from vegetables or vitamin pills, it doesn’t know the source of the fluoride, she says.
The U.S. Public Health Service considers the optimum fluoridation rate to be 0.7 to 1.2 parts of fluoride to 1 million parts of water. But any water system with at least 0.6 is considered fluoridated, Zinner says.
The most recent test — in 1997 — showed Cornish’s water supply with a fluoridation rate of 1 part per million, according to Zinner. Another test is due this year.
There is no way to predict what areas will have the proper levels of natural fluoride, although well water is more likely than spring water to be fluoridated and places with volcanic rock are more likely to leach fluoride into the water supply, Zinner says.
McKnight — whose two sons, ages 15 and 21, and daughter, 18, have just one cavity each — says the family dentist is amazed at the strength of her children’s teeth.
“My 15-year-old eats that chewy candy crap and doesn’t brush. He [the dentist] was truly amazed,” she says.
McKnight was chagrined at her first cavity, discovered when she was pregnant at age 21, and her second with a later pregnancy. Her doctor explained it is common for pregnant women to develop cavities because calcium is going to the developing baby.
“My dentist says I probably won’t have any more [cavities] if I floss every day for the rest of my life,” McKnight says.
Larry Pitcher, the Cornish mayor’s cousin, also has tough teeth, which he attributes to being a devout milk drinker. And he is not so sure that genetics isn’t a bigger factor than fluoride. His wife has poor teeth, and so does one son, even though he was reared on Cornish water.
“Fluoridation helps, but I don’t know that it’s all it’s cracked up to be,” Larry Pitcher says.