TOPEKA – The Legislature will not force Wichita to add fluoride to its water, says the chairwoman of a committee handling a bill that could do just that.
But lawmakers are not ready to drop the issue altogether, says Sen. Susan Wagle, because Wichita’s cavities are costing the state money.
Lawmakers don’t know exactly how much the state’s dental bill could be cut with fluoride, which helps prevent tooth decay. But they do know the state spent more than $4 million last year on dental treatment for uninsured Sedgwick County residents.
“We have valid concerns because of the costs,” said Wagle, a Wichita Republican.
Wagle’s Public Health and Welfare Committee reviewed testimony for and against fluoride over three days last week.
A majority of the panel was unwilling to require Wichita and Hutchinson to fluoridate their water, a move that would be unprecedented in Kansas. The two cities have the largest public water supplies in the state that are not fluoridated.
Alternatives to a state mandate could include a resolution, a letter or other public encouragement for the city to use fluoride, Wagle said.
Wichita Mayor Carlos Mayans wants nothing to do with the issue.
“Fluoridation should be left up to communities and the elected bodies of local governments,” he said “At this point, fluoridation is not on our agenda.”
Vice Mayor Sharon Fearey is not so quick to dismiss it, however.
“I think it does need to be a local control issue, although I understand the state’s dilemma, spending extra money,” she said.
A Wichita ordinance requires voter approval to fluoridate. When the issue has come up in recent years, city officials have pointed out that voters rejected it in 1964 and 1978.
For her to favor putting the issue before voters again, Fearey said, she would need to see how fluoride proponents plan to educate people on the issue.
Wagle said voter rejection more than a quarter-century ago is no reason to dismiss fluoridation now.
“1978 was a long time ago. A fresh look at the issue at the local level wouldn’t be a bad idea,” she said.
Children from low-income homes pay the price for lack of fluoride, Wichita dentist Phil Zivnuska told lawmakers.
In February he helped screen students at Cloud Elementary School, where 92 percent of the students are considered economically disadvantaged. He and his staff found 290 of 646 students with tooth decay that was readily visible with the use of a tongue depressor.
Thirty-three had infections advanced to the point of discharging pus, he said.
“That’s why this is worth doing,” Zivnuska said.
Start-up costs to add fluoride in Wichita are estimated at $1.58 million.
United Methodist Health Ministry Fund has offered grant money to cover much of the up-front costs.
Critics question the effectiveness of fluoride and say a little too much can cause yellow teeth and worse.
They suggest links to Down syndrome, cancer and other ill effects, and they have a sympathetic ear in Mayans, who considers fluoridated water “government mass medication.”
Mayans and others point out that fluoride occurs naturally in water supplies and can be supplemented with toothpaste, tablets and other sources.
The amount of naturally occurring fluoride in Wichita’s water is too low to prevent tooth decay, health experts say.
Short of a mandate, any action by lawmakers would raise the level of discussion in Wichita, said Sally Finney, director of the Kansas Public Health Association.
She said taxpayers across the state pay for the lack of fluoride in Wichita through Medicaid and higher insurance premiums.
Senate President Dave Kerr is not keen on a state mandate, though he’s convinced “the evidence is overwhelming that fluoride prevents cavities.”
Without a mandate, however, he doubts the state can do anything.
“We get down to the brushing habits of communities and I’m not sure I want to go there,” said Kerr, R-Hutchinson.
Wagle hasn’t given up on some action.
“There might be something we can do before it’s over,” she said.