MONTREAL – Almost one in two children entering kindergarten in Quebec has cavity-ridden teeth, according to a public health study released yesterday.

The number is twice that of Ontario children, according to researchers.

Dr. Jean-Marc Brodeur, the study’s author, said ignoring problems with children’s teeth was storing up trouble for the future.

“The population certainly doesn’t attach a lot of importance to the teeth of their children,” said Dr. Brodeur.

“This is serious, because decayed baby teeth can affect the health of permanent teeth,” Dr. Brodeur said. “In addition to causing pain in a child, a cavity can hinder the growth of a permanent tooth and its position in the mouth.”

The study found 42% of children under five had cavities in their baby teeth.

The average number of cavities was 3.9, and 65% were filled.

Researchers also examined the dental records of children aged seven and eight, and discovered their teeth were also in bad shape.

In the seven- and eight-year-old age group, 24% already had cavities in their permanent teeth.

However, the number of cavities in children seven and eight had dropped by 38% during the past 20 years, suggesting dental hygiene and awareness is improving.

Dr. Brodeur cited a successful program in which dental hygienists visit elementary schools twice a year and examine the teeth of children at risk for tooth decay.

He noted tooth decay is two-and-a-half times greater among children who come from poor families.

Dr. Brodeur recommended Montreal and other Quebec cities add fluoride to their drinking water to prevent cavities.

He also called on the provincial government to reinstate free dental care for children – a service that was cancelled by the province in 1982.

Montreal is one of the last major cities in North America without fluoridated water – which helps explain Quebec’s higher incidence of childhood tooth decay, he said.

Dentist Annie Marleau, of Montreal Children’s Hospital, who has been examining children’s teeth for a decade, bemoaned the lack of public dental-hygiene programs for children under five.

She blamed ignorance and lack of education for the problem of decay in baby teeth.

“I’m not only talking about the parents, but also pediatricians and even dentists.

“I don’t think this disease is recognized in general,” the dentist said.

She recommended that as soon as a child grows a tooth, parents should ensure it is brushed daily.

She also urged parents to take their child to the dentist as early as his or her first birthday.