Hundreds of dentists gathered in Portland this week for a national conference on oral health. They came to the right place: Once San Diego follows through on plans to fluoridate its municipal water by May 2010, Portland will be the nation’s largest city without fluoridated water.
Portland’s kids, especially those in low-income families, will continue to pay the price for Oregon’s backward policy: There’s overwhelming evidence that children who grow up in communities without fluoridated water suffer much more, and much worse, dental decay.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls the steep reduction in dental cavities due to adding fluoride to public water supplies as one of the top 10 public health achievements of the 20th century. It’s an achievement not shared in Portland, or in most Oregon communities. Corvallis, Coos Bay, Beaverton and a few dozen other Oregon towns have fluoridated water. But everywhere else, community leaders have bowed to the scare tactics and unsubstantiated claims of people who oppose fluoridation.
In the 1950s, the critics claimed that fluoridation was a communist plot, one of the absurdities lampooned in Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Now opponents claim that fluoridation causes weak bones and bone cancer, and/or causes environmental damage. The CDC has studied and rejected all the claims of negative health effects. And at the low levels used in community water systems, there is no compelling evidence that fluoridation kills salmon or causes other environmental harm.
Meanwhile, there is no doubt, none, that lack of fluoridation and tooth decay, especially among children, are strongly correlated. Every dollar spent on fluoridation saves $38 on dental treatment, according to the American Dental Association.
The lack of fluoridation is an especially cruel policy in Oregon, which doubles down on poor kids and their parents by having one of the highest rates of uninsured kids in the nation. If you don’t think this is an issue, you ought to show up at one of the occasional free dental days at Oregon Health & Science University, and look at all the kids waiting in the long, long lines, suffering with rotting teeth, painful infections and swollen faces.