By this time next year, fluoride will be routinely added to the country’s drinking water. Until then, Jerusalem residents concerned about protecting their teeth will have to rely on fluoride supplements.

Various sources estimate that about half the country’s drinking supply, including that in the Tel Aviv area, contains fluoride, which has been found to significantly lower tooth decay and strengthen bones when added to the water supply in the correct quantity.

People who drink fluoridated water for a lifetime will develop up to 70 percent fewer cavities than they would have without fluoridation, according to the American Council on Science and Health. In the US, this means that each dollar invested in fluoridation prevents over $80 of dental treatment.

Mekorot began work on 120 fluoridation stations around the country following a December 1998 Knesset decision making it responsible for fluoridating the state’s entire drinking water supply, Guri Shannan, the national water company’s project manager for fluoridation, explained yesterday. Prior to that, and until the project is completed next year, the municipalities that want to provide fluoridated water for their residents are on their own.

Tel Aviv began providing its residents with fluoridated water for free in 1988, according to the municipal spokesman. In the mid-’90s, Jerusalem established a station that fluoridated about a quarter of its water supply, said Itchocq Gur, spokesman for the municipality-owned Gihon Water and Wastewater Supply Company. When the facility broke down a few years later, the municipality couldn’t come up with the funds to repair it, he said.

Mekorot is in the process of repairing the facility, building a second one, and fluoridating several wells, Shannan said yesterday. The work in Jerusalem should be completed by October, he said, adding that work in the rest of the country is slated to be completed by May 2001. He noted that the Jerusalem Municipality will be responsible for deciding whether to provide fluoridated water from the time the work is completed until May.

Once Mekorot takes over full responsibility in May, the cost of water may rise 3 agorot per cubic meter to cover the approximately $45 million annual cost of fluoridation.

Shannan said that, while it is likely the public will pay for the cost, a final decision has not yet been made and there is a possibility that the Finance Ministry will cover it.

For now, the local authorities that opt to fluoridate their water are covering the cost, even though the 1998 law permits them to pass the cost on to residents.