Six decades after water fluoridation became common in the United States, and 13 years after it was named by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as one of the 20th century’s 10 great public health achievements, two impressive groups are determined to bring it to Wichita. It’s certainly about time.
At the very least, Wichita is due a science-based debate about water fluoridation, a benefit endorsed by the past five U.S. surgeons general and enjoyed by 74 percent of Americans and 65 percent of Kansans supplied by public water systems.
The scaremongering use of suspect science has prevailed long enough in Wichita, which is the fourth-largest city in the country that hasn’t opted to raise the naturally occurring fluoride levels in its water to the level believed to improve oral health – 0.7 parts per million.
“Fluoridation safely and inexpensively benefits both children and adults by effectively preventing tooth decay, regardless of socioeconomic status or access to care,” the CDC counsels, crediting community water fluoridation with 40 to 70 percent reductions in tooth decay in children and 40 to 60 percent less tooth loss in adults in the latter half of the 20th century.
Yet Wichita’s families and children still are on the sidelines of that public health advance.
Local voters rejected water fluoridation in 1964 and 1978, and elected officials variously have treated it with disdain or indifference ever since – as if they could ignore it and make it go away.
This time the advocates themselves are too formidable to ignore: the Kansas Health Foundation, which is launching a website (www.FluorideForUs.com) and ad campaign, and a new group dubbed Wichitans for Healthy Teeth (wichitansforhealthyteeth.org) that has the Wichita District Dental Society, the Medical Society of Sedgwick County and a total of 368 local dentists, physicians and other medical professionals behind it. The latter group is seeking grant money to offset the modest infrastructure costs of water fluoridation for Wichita – and to counter arguments that it would be too costly.
The advocates have some other eye-opening numbers on their side this time, too, including that every $1 invested in water fluoridation saves $38 in dental treatment costs, and that the city could reduce tooth decay an estimated 25 percent and save Wichitans $4.5 million annually in restorative care.
Wichita’s history suggests the resistance will try to shout down this latest effort with lots of persuasive-sounding “facts” about health dangers and talking points about freedom.
The important message of the new dual advocacy efforts, however: Water fluoridation is too important to public health to ignore any longer. Whether it means another public vote or just a bruising public debate leading up to Wichita City Council approval, bring it on.
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman