SCHENECTADY — For decades, the city has spent thousands to add fluoride to the drinking water in hopes of protecting residents’ teeth. But as the price for the chemical rises and more municipalities question fluoride’s effectiveness, city officials are wondering whether it’s really worth the cost.
“If it isn’t that much of a benefit, we’re going to consider not doing it,” Commissioner of General Services Carl Olsen said.
Only one vendor offered a bid for the city’s annual fluoride purchase, and the price nearly doubled, Olsen said. The city had to pay $45,000 for this year’s supply.
“So we’re definitely taking a look at it,” Olsen said. “It’s very difficult to get.”
Schenectady would not be the first municipality to drop fluoride. The village of Cobleskill stopped putting fluoride in its water last year. Amsterdam in Montgomery County and most Schoharie County public systems don’t treat their water either, and Albany has never added fluoride to its water.
Cities started adding fluoride to their water in 1945. They found that it was most effective in protecting teeth if it was consumed before the teeth erupt, and reported a 50 to 60 percent drop in cavities, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But later studies, which tried to duplicate the earlier reports, had great difficulty creating scientifically approved control groups since everyone in a city is exposed to the same water. The studies also found much lower rates of cavity reduction, ranging from 18 to 40 percent, according to the CDC.
The health agency attributed the lower results to the country’s increased use of fluoride in other sources, particularly toothpaste. With all the other ways to get fluoride today, it’s possible that treated water doesn’t play as large a role anymore, CDC doctors said in a 2001 report.
Albany officials say there are so many ways to get fluoride that it’s completely unnecessary to add it to the drinking water.
“There are sufficient other places where people can get fluoride. Toothpaste, mouthwash, you can even get tablets now,” said Albany Water Commissioner Robert Cross. “You can get it to those who need it instead of giving it to everybody. The decision has always been there’s no need for fluoride in the water.”
But Schenectady dentists said the elimination of fluoridated water in their city would hurt the residents who can least afford to go to the dentist or buy their own sources of fluoride.
“You’ve got to remember there’s a lot of people in the community who will, for a variety of reasons, never seek dental care,” said Schenectady dentist Dr. Peter Gold. “Fluoride reaches everyone who consumes the city’s drinking water, which is rich and poor.”
Other dentists said the change would particularly hurt poor children, who often don’t go to a dentist unless they have serious tooth decay. They miss out on tooth-cleaning lessons and regular fluoride treatments, dentists said, and thus can’t afford to also lose the benefit of fluoridated water.
In Schenectady, 3,400 children under the age of 12 were living in poverty during the 2000 census.
Several Albany dentists who see children from both cities said they didn’t see a significant difference in cavities between Albany and Schenectady children, but they said they still wished their city’s water was fluoridated.
“It is a valuable thing for the community. It makes the tooth more resistant to decay. Children are given fluoride to aid the developing teeth,” said Robin Shaw, a hygienist speaking for Rose Dental in Albany.
The CDC also says that fluoridated water helps protect adult teeth when they have exposed roots. The agency’s 2001 report concluded by urging municipalities to continue the fluoridated water program even though fluoridated toothpaste has also reduced cavities significantly.
“Community water fluoridation is a safe, effective, and inexpensive way to prevent dental [cavities],” the report read. “Fluoridated community drinking water and fluoride toothpaste are the most common sources of fluoride in the United States and are largely responsible for the low risk for dental [cavities] for most persons in this country.”