Fluoridation: Public health, not forced medication

The News TribuneJune 27, 2014 

The battle against fluoridation is like the battle against vaccinations. It never stops, and it’s a continuing threat to public health.

A skirmish has begun in Fircrest, whose water has been fluoridated since 1957. A group of citizens there has been pressing the City Council to stop the practice, offering the usual “scientific” claims.

We don’t question the sincerity of fluoridation opponents. They obviously believe in their cause and feel genuine concern. Some are quite passionate. The problem is that belief, concern and passion don’t always translate into what’s best for a community.

Let’s be clear: Excessive levels of fluoride can be dangerous. That’s true of any substance on Earth, including salt, water and even oxygen.

But like many minerals, fluoride functions as a micronutrient in the right concentrations. It strengthens teeth and bones. It occurs naturally in water; in some communities, Mother Nature already provides optimal levels of it. Since low-fluoride cities began adding it to their public water supplies in the 1940s and 1950s, it has been spectacularly successful at preventing tooth decay in children.

Cavities are not a minor nuisance: They lead to worse diseases, including severe abscesses. The chronic pain alone can stall a child’s education.

The public health organizations that track fluoride consumption are not operating on autopilot. Their scientists know that Americans are now getting the mineral from other sources, including soft drinks and processed foods.

As a result, they lowered their recommendations for fluoride levels a few years ago. Decisions like that are driven by evidence, unlike sweeping claims that fluoridation at any level is intrinsically harmful.

The claims of fluoridation opponents should be weighed against the credibility of the organizations that reject those claims. Supporters of fluoridation include the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the American Dental Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other scientific groups too numerous to list in this space. These are not sinister or deluded people.

Then there’s the argument that people are being medicated against their will. Not quite. The common definition of a medicine is something that treats disease. Fluoridation — like vaccination, or water chlorination, or the iodization of salt — prevents disease, and does it successfully on a large scale.

That makes it a public health measure. It’s a critically important one, especially for low-income children who have limited access to dentists and fluoride treatments.

More than two-thirds of Americans today drink fluoridated water. Fircrest itself has had more than 55 years of experience with fluoridation. If its population were suffering from it, you’d think we’d know by now.

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