Lisa Howard has seen both sides of the tooth.
As a Minnesota dentist, she practiced in one town where residents drank fluoridated water, and another where they drank untreated well water. In the well-water town, her patients had many more cavities, she said.
“It proved to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that (fluoride) made a difference,” Howard said. “It’s the most cost-effective way to prevent tooth decay that there is.”
When Howard, 48, moved to Kennebunk in 1998, she was surprised to learn that fluoride was not added to water in the Kennebunk, Kennebunkport, and Wells Water District (KKW).
It’s the last major water district in Maine where that’s the case, and she decided to change that.
Unlike in other states, where government bodies can decide on fluoridation, Maine law requires that voters decide. So Howard and other volunteers went to town councils and boards of selectmen in the KKW service area, asking them to put water fluoridation on the ballot.
They did, and voters from Biddeford Pool to York – including voters who aren’t KKW customers – will decide on fluoridation Nov. 5. In Biddeford, KKW serves the the coastal neighborhoods east of Route 9.
If a majority of voters want fluoridation, they’ll get it. KKW doesn’t care either way.
“We’re officially neutral,” said Norman Labbe, the water district’s superintendent. “If the people want it, we’ll do it.”
Adding the chemical would cost KKW $100,000 for a additional storage space and $25,000 annually in operating costs, Labbe said. That’s small change in KKW’s $4 million annual operating budget, he said, and wouldn’t force a rate increase.
Of course, the whole world isn’t in love with water fluoridation. No organized opposition to fluoridation has come forward in York County, but opposition in other parts of the country has been tenacious.
“It’s a communist plot,” Howard jokingly said.
Jeff Green, the co-founder of San Diego-based Citizens for Safe Drinking Water, doesn’t see the humor. His group goes after fluoridation laws like a dentist goes after cavities. Green argues that fluoridation can have severely toxic effects on the human body – and that it doesn’t prevent tooth decay.
“It doesn’t work when you swallow it,” he said.
Green’s group has killed local fluoride measures in several Western states and has preempted fluoridation by pushing cities and towns to require that anything added to the water supply have Food and Drug Administration approval, which fluoride doesn’t have.
Closer to home, successful campaigns against fluoridation have been waged in Massachusetts. In Worcester, for example, voters have rejected water fluoridation four times.
Still, the American Dental Association has endorsed fluoridation and the Centers for Disease Control called it one of the “great public health achievements of the 20th century.”
The Maine Bureau of Health also endorses fluoride. “The information available to us doesn’t indicate that the (negative) claims are valid,” said Judy Feinstein, manager of the oral health program at the Maine Bureau of Health.
The anti-fluoride claims irritate Howard, who said fluoride has changed the nature of oral health, which is vitally important to a person’s overall health.
For a dentist, she said, “there’s nothing more excruciating than seeing a person in their 20s with a mouth full of cavities.”