Kim Weigand can’t forget the time she let her dentist give her a routine fluoride treatment during a visit to his office.
“Within a short period after I got home, I was in excruciating pain,” she said. “I felt like my mouth was absolutely on fire.”
On the other hand, Kathy Trilli can’t forget that she and her older siblings had lots of tooth decay growing up in non-fluoridated Sheridan, Wyo., but her two younger brothers had no problems after the city added fluoride to the public water supply when she was in college.
They had the same parents, ate the same foods and snacks, she said. It had to be the fluoride.
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“The only difference in growing up was before and after fluoride,” Trilli said.
The debate over whether to add fluoride to Wichita’s water supply is likely to grow after the City Council voted last week to place the issue on the Nov. 6 ballot. People on both sides of the issue frequently cite scientific research to back their claims that fluoride can help prevent tooth decay or that it can harm health.
In many cases, strong feelings about fluoride are born from personal experiences living with, or without, it.
Weigand, a holistic life coach at the Quantum Path in Wichita, knew she was sensitive to chemicals, but she said she didn’t anticipate the agony she endured after her fluoride treatment. She strongly opposes efforts to fluoridate the city’s water.
“I am a perfect example of the canary in the coal mine,” she said.
Weigand said she has refused fluoride treatments since her first one, and she avoids toothpastes that contain fluoride. She said she has so rarely had a cavity that she can’t recall her last one.
But Trilli, a dental hygienist, said she was a school screener in Garden City and saw a high rate of decay in western Kansas school kids until fluoride was added to the water in Garden City five years ago. Since then, the rate of tooth decay among third-graders in western Kansas has dropped from 50 percent to 38 percent, she said.
“The cavity rates are going down, down, down in Garden City,” Trilli said.
People who have lived in areas where fluoride has been added to public water supplies have had different experiences.
Jon Shields, a methods engineer in Bombardier flight test, said he lived in fluoridated Minneapolis, Minn., most of his life.
“My teeth were a disaster,” he said.
Shields said he brushed carefully, visited the dentist consistently and ate nutritious foods.
Still, he said, “As a child I had an extreme amount of cavities, to the point my parents were constantly paying for dental visits. Later on, I got into fluoridated toothpaste and I was finding I was getting canker sores.”
When he moved to Wichita in 2004, he thought he’d found paradise, Shields said.
To him, the debate over adding fluoride to the city’s public water supply has an unfortunate side effect.
“The sad part about it is, this takes all the attention off what kids really need these days, which is nutrition,” he said.
David Dorf, chief financial officer for Heartspring, which helps children with special needs, said he grew up in McPherson when it didn’t add fluoride to its water, and he constantly had to go to the dentist to have cavities filled. Even as his new teeth came in, they got cavities, he said.
When Dorf left the Navy in 1979, he and his family lived in fluoridated Salina for 12 years. His teeth improved, and his two daughters had no cavity problems at all, he said.
He credits the fluoride.
“I just compare the fact that they grew up in an area where fluoride was available to them in the drinking water,” Dorf said. “The fact is, they had great teeth and still do to this day. And my experience was totally the opposite.”
Views from outside Wichita
Outsiders on both sides of the issue are concerned about the debate in Wichita.
Carol Kopf , of Levittown, N.Y., spearheaded a campaign that stopped 29 years of fluoridation in her hometown in 1983, and she is hoping Wichita doesn’t let it get started.
Kopf said she believed dentists at first that fluoride was safe for her children. She began researching the issue for a paper in a journalism class. The paper didn’t come out for or against it, but when challenged by her professor, she did more research.
Dentists provided her with inadequate information and told her just to believe them and not the “lunatic fringe” who opposed it, Kopf said. But when she asked them to critique the science that fluoride opponents presented, “they either said it didn’t exist, or they waved me away with the back of their hand,” she said. Kopf said that fluoridation opponents, meanwhile, were generous with their time and information and answered all her questions.
Kopf said she went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in science and environmental reporting at New York University. Today she volunteers with the New York State Coalition Opposed to Fluoridation, and the Fluoride Action Network.
She said big money behind the push to fluoridate Wichita’s water will drown out those opposed.
“This Wichita fluoridation battle has nothing to do with truth,” Kopf said. “But it’s all about power and money.”
But Bill Maas, a public health dentist in Bethesda, Md., and former director of the Division of Oral Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, supports the effort to add fluoride to Wichita’s water.
He recalls doing exams of low-income children when he was a dental student at the University of Michigan. He was surprised to find that one group of children had much more tooth decay than another, even though both groups came from poor backgrounds. He later learned the group with less decay lived in an area with fluoridated water.
Maas is a consultant for the Pew Children’s Dental Campaign, a partner of the Kansas Health Foundation, which is supporting the fluoridation drive in Wichita.
He said families of scientists and doctors at the National Institutes of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention live in cities with fluoridated water.
They don’t have any concerns about the health fears raised by fluoride opponents, he said.
“If there really was something to their claims, these people would speak up,” Maas said. “But they don’t.”