The vast majority of scientists agree that water fluoridation poses no health risk and that it strengthens teeth. But the proponents of fluoridation in Salt Lake and Davis counties appear to be using fuzzy math to exaggerate its benefits while they minimize critical questions about dosage and cost. Perhaps they can clear up these questions at tonight’s forum (5:30 p.m., Room N111, Salt Lake County Government Center, 2001 S. State).
One figure that might surprise some Utahns is the difference between the average number of decayed, missing or filled teeth (DMFT) for all U.S. residents (about 2.5) and those in Utah (3.4). The numbers are from the pro-fluoride group Utahns for Better Dental Health.
With all the fuss of the past few years, one might have thought Utahns averaged 20 cavities, but that seems to have been part of the strategy of fluoridation proponents. They generally have served up the DMFT data in percentages, since 36 percent more cavities sounds far more serious than nine-tenths of one cavity. They also haven’t been quick to mention that Utah’s DMFTs fell 0.29 between 1987 and 1997 (in the preferred language of proponents, that’s a whopping 8 percent).
Some of the fuzziest math has involved the cost of fluoridation. While many proponents have been quoting the national average of 50 cents per person, the dozens of wells in Salt Lake and Davis counties — each requiring its own equipment — would drive that number higher. How high? Davis County officials have estimated the cost at about $2 per person, but on Monday they could provide no firm figures. Neither could Salt Lake County.
How fluoride intake is regulated in fluoridated systems is fuzzier still. While a prescription bottle of fluoride pills offers explicit instructions for dosage and warnings not to exceed it, the amount of fluoride ingested with water depends on how much water is consumed. It is clear from national studies that this variation poses no health risk, but it is also clear that since kids come in all sizes and activity levels, the amount ingested by individual children will vary greatly. Proponents can’t say exactly how this all works out, but they have studies to prove that it does. (For the record, a child must drink 1 liter of water to get the recommended daily fluoride dosage of 1 milligram in systems fluoridated at 1 part per million.)
The Salt Lake County Commission had to twist some arms in the Health Department to get officials to take part in tonight’s forum, and that is unfortunate. Utahns deserve to have all the information, pro and con, before voting on whether to commit their tax dollars in three weeks. The problem has been that well-meaning proponents are so certain of their cause that they don’t want to risk lending weight to opponents’ claims.
Yet with the weight of the world’s scientific establishment behind fluoridation, proponents should have nothing to fear on that front.
A better issue is whether voters should spend millions in taxes to let government fight Utah’s nine-tenths of a cavity, or whether people should assume responsibility for their own mouths. For anyone who wants them, fluoride pills are cheap and easy to obtain.