Infectious disease control. Proving the dangers of tobacco. Motor-vehicle safety. These advances are a few of what comprise the 10 great public health achievements in the 20th century, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Undoubtedly, these advances have saved many millions of lives. They are the foundation of public health, which the World Health Organization defines as “all organized measures (whether public or private) to prevent disease, promote health and prolong life among the population as a whole.”
May I propose another public health achievement: water fluoridation.
Perhaps that is something that did not come to mind when you thought of the remaining seven public health achievements. Yet, the CDC includes it in this prestigious list. In fact, all the way back in 1901, Dr. Frederick S. McKay of Colorado Springs was among the first to observe the protective effect of fluoride on dental cavities.
How does it work?
Fluoride that is swallowed, say through a city water supply that is fluoridated, combines with calcium and phosphate as teeth are formed under the gums. These teeth are more resistant to decay and cavities throughout childhood. For people of all ages, fluoride also heals teeth and protects them from further decay after saliva neutralizes the acid produced by bacteria on our teeth.
The Community Preventive Services Task Force analyzed 21 studies and concluded fluoridated water reduced tooth decay by a median rate of 29 percent among children. But, the benefits are not only for children. The Journal of Dental Research analyzed nine studies and concluded water fluoridation reduced tooth decay of adults by 27 percent. Water fluoridation is the most effective and practical method for reducing disparities in oral health among groups with varying income and insurance resources.
It turns out fluoride toothpaste is not enough to reap all the protective benefits of this nine-proton ion. Since 1980, when fluoridated toothpaste reached more than 90 percent of the market, countless studies have demonstrated lower rates of tooth decay in communities also having access to fluoridated tap water.
Not only does fluoridated water help our community achieve the common good, but it also saves money – a lot of money. In 2003 alone, Colorado saved nearly $149 million in unnecessary treatment costs by fluoridating public water supplies – average savings of $61 per person.
For all of these reasons and many more, I applaud the city of Durango for fluoridating its water supply. However, there are still 5,000 people just outside Durango without adequate fluoride in their water supply.
I encourage you to read more about this topic from my source for this article, the Campaign for Dental Health at www.ilikemyteeth.org. You can check to see if you have fluoride in your tap water at the CDC’s “My Water’s Fluoride” at http://apps.nccd.cdc.gov/MWF/index.asp.
Mike Frank is a third-year medical student from the University of Colorado School of Medicine. He is completing his rural and community family practice clerkship with Dr. Matthew Clark at the Ute Mountain Ute Health Center.