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75 years ago, fluoride was first used in water. That’s something to smile about. | Column
A retired dentist reminds us of the value of having fluoridated the water systems.
Health experts say that the people who benefit most from fluoridation are the poor, who often don't have access to the foods and dental health products they need to keep their teeth in good shape.
Health experts say that the people who benefit most from fluoridation are the poor, who often don't have access to the foods and dental health products they need to keep their teeth in good shape.
Published Jan. 21, 2020
Updated Jan. 21, 2020

Toothaches and tooth loss used to be miseries that Floridians took for granted. In the late 1950s, most Americans aged 65 or older had lost all of their teeth, largely because of tooth decay (cavities). Since then, the portion of seniors with complete tooth loss has dropped by roughly 70 percent. The road to this improvement began 75 years ago this month when our nation tested a new approach: community water fluoridation.

Fluoride is a mineral that exists naturally in nearly all water; rivers, lakes, groundwater, and saltwater. In the 1930s, researchers learned that people whose drinking water had a certain level of fluoride suffered fewer cavities. In January 1945, a Michigan water system became the first in the world to adjust the fluoride in their drinking water to reach this level. Cavities in this city fell dramatically, leading Gainesville officials in 1949 to make their city the first in Florida to begin adjusting their natural level of fluoride in their water to this ideal level.

Fluoridation significantly lowers cavities for adults and children. This positive impact is why fluoridation is supported by the leading health and medical organizations, including the American Dental Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Dr. Johnny Johnson
Dr. Johnny Johnson

After 75 years of fluoridation, there is both good and bad news. The good news is that 77 percent of Floridians on community water systems reap the benefits of fluoridation through their tap water. The bad news? A handful of people around the world are using false or misleading messages to try to pressure city councils or other local decision-makers to end fluoridation. These critics have been active in various Florida communities, including Pinellas.

In particular, anti-fluoride activists have cited a Canadian study to instill fear about fluoride exposure during pregnancy. Critics ignore the fact that a leading Canadian health agency reviewed this study and called its evidence “weak.” In addition, dozens of international experts have raised serious questions about the quality of this study.

Across the state, I have worked with other dentists, pediatricians and concerned parents to counter misinformation and educate local decision-makers. In almost every instance, we have been successful in preserving fluoridation policies. Ending this form of prevention would affect everyone, especially those who struggle to get regular dental care because of their income or other factors.

Floridians cannot take healthy teeth for granted. Preventing cavities affects education and employment. By preventing cavities, fluoridation enables more children to eat, sleep, speak and learn without pain. Fluoridation also lowers the odds that adults will have unhealthy or missing teeth—a factor that can put them at a disadvantage when seeking jobs.

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This is not just about teeth. Growing research suggests that bacteria and disease within the mouth may be connected with other health conditions. A study of older adults showed that infections of the root tip of a tooth were linked to the risk of coronary artery disease.

Fluoride is nature’s way to prevent tooth decay. Receiving its benefits through tap water and toothpaste is giving many Floridians a good reason to smile.

Dr. Johnny Johnson is a retired pediatric dentist whose practice served Palm Harbor and surrounding counties. He is president of the American Fluoridation Society.