A national coalition of dental health groups launched a new effort Tuesday to expand the fluoridation of municipal water supplies in America as a way to improve oral health.
Wichita is among the largest cities in the nation that doesn’t add fluoride to its water supply, according to state and local health officials. It has rejected several fluoridation efforts over the years.
“Water fluoridation is a no-brainer,” said Bill Bentley, president and CEO of Voices for America’s Children. He noted the nation has seen a dramatic decline in tooth decay among children since 1960s. Adding fluoride to city water is largely responsible for the decline, advocates said.
Foes of fluoridation, however, said they would fight any effort to add fluoride to the water in Wichita.
Other representatives of the dental coalition – which includes the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Pew Children’s Dental Campaign – said during a teleconference that in times of personal and local municipal cost-cutting, adding fluoride to water represents long-range savings in dental and medical treatment costs.
The coalition is making the push to counter what Bentley called “hysterical” Internet posts that spread misinformation about fluoride. It has started a web site, Ilikemyteeth.org. to provide information on fluoride.
Mary Brown, an Oregon pediatrician and a former member of the board of directors of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said fluoridation has been a safe and cost-effective health measure for children for 65 years.
“Communities that don’t fluoridate their water are depriving them of proven cavity prevention,” she said.
A tough sell
That’s been a hard sell in Wichita, which remains among the top 10 largest cities in the country without fluoridated drinking water, said Tanya Dorf Brunner, executive director of the advocacy group Oral Health Kansas
Statewide, Kansas received a C grade for dental care for children in a recent Pew Center for the States report. Lack of access to fluoridated water was one of the factors that resulted in the poor grade, Dorf Brunner said.
Lawrence, Kansas City, Topeka, and Garden City fluoridate their water.
“Wichita is the city that’s dragging that number down,” she said.
Fluoride exists naturally in water supplies. It is up to local municipalities to decide whether to add fluoridation at levels that reduce tooth decay, said Kathy Weno, state dental director who heads the Bureau of Oral Health at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment .
That’s not likely to happen anytime soon in Wichita.
“It is highly doubtful the council would advance fluoridation without an approving referendum.,” said Jay C. Hinkel, deputy city attorney.
There have been two referenda in Wichita, and both rejected fluoridation. The City Council passed an ordinance in 1964, but voters later repealed it by a large majority. Another referendum was defeated in the 1978 general election.
The last time the Wichita City Council seriously considered fluoridation was in 1999, when a proposal by a coalition of health groups was buried under complaints that fluoridation would amount to involuntary medical treatment.
Fluoridation first arose as in issue in Kansas in the 1950s when it was endorsed by the state board of health. Several bills in the legislature to mandate fluoridation statewide failed in the 1970s. The last effort died in the Legislature in 2004 because it didn’t get traction in Wichita.
The coalition of dental health groups claimed that Kansas is one of nine states where fewer than 50 percent of residents have access to community fluoridated water, but Weno said 63 percent of state residents are on fluoridated water.
That’s still below the national benchmark of 75 percent, Brunner said.
More cavities seen
One local dentist can see the effect of the lack of fluoridated water.
“We certainly see more cavities,” said Wichita dentist Brick Scheer. “If you go from state to state, you’ll see fewer cavities in cities with fluoridated water.”
Opponents of fluoridating the city’s water say that it causes health problems such as birth defects, cancer or Alzheimer’s disease, he said. Research doesn’t support their fears.
“Science is overwhelmingly on the side that it is safe,” Scheer said.
But opponents are vocal and passionate.
“Fluoride is like ingesting mercury,” said James Gragg, of Wichita, who has campaigned against fluoride. “It messes with the nervous system and the immune system. It’s really scary.”
Gragg and Travis Crank, another Wichita fluoridation foe, put up hundreds of posters in the area last year warning that our tap water is poisoned, even though the city does not add fluoride to the water.
Crank, a member of “We are Change Wichita,” a loose group of activists who battle accepted wisdom on issues like fluoridation, believe fluoridation started with Stalin and Hitler as a way to make concentration camp inmates docile.
“It‘s a poison,” he said. “Because it’s been going on for so long doesn’t undo the fact that it’s a poison. It’s just a total fraud.”
The American Dental Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Institute of Medicine and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention endorse fluoridation as a safe way to reduce decay.