The fluoridation of our public water supply is an important and highly debated issue in our community today. To be transparent, I will say I am in the majority who favor this plan. All credible and current medical science supports fluoridation as the single most effective strategy for preventing dental caries. I also think that most of the very smart, thoughtful opponents to fluoridating the water would agree. Where we disagree is in how the fluoride gets to our teeth.
I have been in many meetings recently and have heard opponents tout pseudo-scientific "evidence" that drinking fluoridated water is dangerous, causes brittle bones, bone cancer and altered behavior, among other maladies. I wish that, instead of putting up these poorly supported arguments in face of the many credible scientific studies demonstrating that water fluoridation is safe and effective, they would be honest about their true fears.
Fluoridating the public water supply encroaches upon our sacred American value of individual choice. Even I acknowledge this as a supporter. I believe this to be the true issue underneath the debate about the "health risks," and I get it. I have wrestled in this muddy water myself (no pun intended), but the reality is that sometimes, public health and safety must trump personal freedoms. It's why we add chlorine to the water to prevent infectious diseases, why we can't smoke in most indoor places, why salt has iodine in it, why some communicable diseases require quarantine, (and sometimes even reporting), and even why our luggage and bodies are subject to examination at the airport.
There are some that would argue that the only solution to our dental disease epidemic is better access to dental care for those who don't have it. Instead of spending money fluoridating our water, let's use that money to open up more clinics, educate more families, ban sugary snacks, they say. No one would disagree that those are all important strategies (although wouldn't banning sugar also infringe on our freedoms?). But, as those of us who work in the trenches of local health care know, increasing access and providing education are part of an overall plan to combat this disease that affects more children in our community than asthma, diabetes and any other childhood illness.
Sonoma County's Oral Health Task Force has been working hard for years to increase access and care. But these efforts are simply not enough to mitigate the overwhelming prevalence and impact of tooth decay in Sonoma County. We need more prevention, too.
To those who would say we can't afford it, I say we can't afford not to. Studies clearly demonstrate that for every $1 spent on water fluoridation, $38 is saved on treatment. Families and communities spend millions every year in Sonoma County to pay for preventable tooth decay. And those are just the hard costs. What about children who are in so much pain they can't eat or concentrate in school? Many of these children require surgery under general anesthesia to treat their severe decay. What about the parents who have to take time off from work to tend to their children who are suffering with pain and infection, or to care for their own infected teeth? What about our elderly who are losing their teeth? We all are impacted by the far-reaching consequences of this public health issue.
In my opinion, fluoridating our water is good for our health, our wallets and our children's future. I'm willing to give up a little of my personal freedom for all that. If you're not, well, then don't drink the water.
<i>Penny Vanderwolk, a Santa Rosa resident, is a member of the Sonoma County Oral Health Task Force.</i>