“Not in my water,” was the battle cry in the 1970s when Whitehall and Montague considered adding fluoride to municipal water supplies in order to save the teeth of the citizenry.
And now, after all these years without the chemical tooth decay inhibitor, the Muskegon County Health Department is encouraging the cities to rethink their prohibition.
Since fluoride was banned, White Lake area children have had to endure regular fluoride “swishes” in school so they can get the benefits not provided by city water. It has also likely had a “pocketbook effect” in the area; one local dentist said introduction of fluoride would certainly lower dental bills of his patients.
All municipal water supplies in the county provide fluoridation except Whitehall and Montague. The health department initiated a meeting with officials of the cities recently to begin chewing on the issue.
While the talks are in the very early stages, Montague City Manager Jerrold Graham said: “It is my understanding that if we were to do it we would have to put it to a vote of the people.”
Graham said Whitehall Mayor Norm Ullman “suggested the health department begin laying the groundwork to educate the public as to the need. Ultimately it will be up to the people if they want it.”
The issue could be put on the ballot in August or November if there is enough interest in one or both cities, Graham said.
Fluoride strengthens tooth enamel and inhibits acid production which causes tooth decay, health officials said. It is also believed to protect tooth roots and prevent gum disease leading to tooth loss.
Health department officials said increasing the number of communities with fluoridated water is a national goal.
“We’re looking at maybe several community forums to talk about fluoride and the history of it,” said Ken Kraus, county health department director.
Both cities have ordinances banning fluoride from municipal water. In the 1970s, the councils of the two cities approved the bans, opting out of the state fluoridation program.
Ullman said he vividly recalls the heated debates at city meetings three decades ago when the issue raised the ire of a large and vocal anti-fluoride contingent.
One man even wrapped the American flag around himself saying he’d never let fluoride in his city water. Some of the arguments heard here and nationwide were that allowing a chemical to be introduced into the water supply would make it too easy for saboteurs for poison the populace.
One local dentist pushed for the addition of fluoride to the water, but others were either less enthusiastic or didn’t want to get involved in the issue, Ullman recalled.
Grand Rapids and Muskegon in 1945 were the nation’s test cities for fluoride. The 15-year test was to compare tooth decay among Grand Rapids residents, who would get fluoride, and Muskegon residents, who would not. The cities were chosen in part because they shared a common water supply Lake Michigan.
But long before the planned 15-year test was complete, other cities seeing the dramatic results Grand Rapids was having began fluoridating their water.
In 1951, Muskegon’s water supply was fluoridated. Muskegon Heights joined in a year later. Grand Haven added it in 1959, Fremont in 1968.
Dentists, in written reports, said the results were incredible. Prior to fluoridation, it was common to see people as young as 25 who needed dentures, and tooth decay among children was rampant.
But the success of fluoridated water elsewhere didn’t influence Whitehall or Montague, whose city councils opted not to add it to the water, or Hart and Pentwater where voters went to the polls to say no to fluoride.
The problem may be the definition of fluorine, an ingredient of fluoride. Webster’s New World Dictionary calls it “a corrosive, poisonous, pale-greenish-yellow gaseous chemical element.” The amount added to water, however, is extremely small less than one part per 1 million gallons of water.
But bad as it sounds, it is good in the right doses. “It promotes strong teeth,” said Don Richards, environmental health director for District 10 health department which covers numerous northern Michigan counties including Mason, Newaygo and Oceana.
Fluoride is a naturally occurring chemical found in underground aquifers and Montague contended in 1973 that it had enough in its water supply to protect the public without adding more.
It is also present in the water supplies of numerous other communities where it is not added to the water. But naturally occurring fluoride is found in amounts too small to do much good, according to reports.
Of course, many Muskegon County residences are not served by municipal supplies and get their water from wells. Those families must make their own arrangements for fluoride treatments.
Last year, 2,029 children in grades one through six in Whitehall, Montague and Holton received fluoride rinse treatments in their classrooms. The rinses, given weekly with parental permission again this year, have been shown to cut decay rate by 35 percent, said Jackie Balcom, dental health coordinator for the health department which operates the program. Parent volunteers administer the treatments.
It is not the most popular event in a kid’s week. Few youngsters like the taste of the fluoride treatment, and some beg their parents not to sign permission slips for the treatments.
But children benefit most if they receive fluoridation in drinking water as preschoolers, Balcom said. Grand Rapids test studies showed a 60 percent reduction in childhood tooth decay where children drank fluoridated water since birth.
The effectiveness of adding fluoride to water supplies is backed up by statistics. In 1988, state studies showed fewer than half of all Michigan school children had ever had tooth decay.
Montague dentist, James Husiak, said fluoridated water would benefit the public.
In his 25 years of practice, he has only had one person object to in-office fluoride treatments. Parents routinely ask for them for their children, he said.
“There has never been a study anywhere in the world to the negative,” he said of fluoridation.
Husiak said fluoridation would save folks a lot of money on dental care because it reduces the incidence of tooth decay.
“Let’s have everyone sit down and talk about it,” he said.