Fluoride in water improves oral health and combats health inequities | Opinion
Published: Jan. 09, 2023, 5:43 p.m.
By Dr. Denise A. Johnson
Everyone knows you should brush and floss your teeth twice a day. But did you know that even when common fluoride products such as toothpaste and mouth rinses are used, fluoridated water reduces tooth decay another 25 percent among children and adults? Studies show that school children in communities with better water fluoridation have, on average, two fewer cavities than children in communities that do not adjust fluoride in the public water.
Fluoride naturally occurs in our drinking water. Based on more than 75 years of health research, some municipalities safely increase the fluoride level so that it reaches the best level to more effectively fight tooth decay.
Imagine improving your health just by turning on the tap and getting a glass of water. That’s what community water fluoridation does. Unfortunately, not everyone is able to visit a dentist every six months. For those who don’t have access to regular dental care, the right amount of fluoride in the water can make a big impact on improving their health. This makes fluoridation an issue of public health equity and justice.
Because, after all, you cannot be truly healthy without good oral health. The health of our mouth is connected to the rest of our bodies, and dental disease can cause many other health issues, such as harming our heart and lungs, making diabetes harder to treat and affecting our ability to think as we age. That’s why it’s so important to maintain healthy teeth and gums.
As an OB-GYN, I know that good oral health can support a healthy pregnancy and give newborns a strong start. Untreated dental disease may lead to problems such as preeclampsia, a dangerous blood pressure condition, or premature birth.
Dental disease also imposes other far-reaching issues on children as they grow up. Children with good oral health are better able to eat, sleep, speak and interact with others – which are key aspects of healthy development. A child with good oral health can also do better in school.
The ability to work and provide for your family is tied to oral health as well. Due to society’s assumptions about appearance, adults with good oral health may have more job opportunities or earn more money than those with dental disease. In addition to this, dental disease can hurt our mental health, as it is one factor leading to low self-confidence and depression.
Over the past 77 years, providing better fluoridation in public drinking water systems has proven to be one of the most affordable, fair and safe measures community leaders can take to help residents prevent cavities and improve oral health. While there is some money needed to maintain fluoride adjustment, there are multiple long-term economic studies confirming the cost benefits of community water fluoridation.
A recent economic review of multiple studies found that these programs actually save communities money, and the bigger picture of better health for all community members is the greatest benefit of all.
Our vision at the Pennsylvania Department of Health is “a healthy Pennsylvania for all.” Community water fluoridation supports this goal and improves the health of everyone who benefits from it. While there is some misinformation currently circulating about fluoride, the facts are that it is safe and effective and that it works to improve a community’s health.
That’s why I fought to get better fluoride treatment in my town, and why I encourage all residents of Pennsylvania to look up if their water is upgraded and, if not, to ask their municipal officials to consider starting this easy practice. It could make a real difference by providing you and your neighbors with healthier mouths and happier lives.
Denise A. Johnson is Acting Secretary of Health and Pennsylvania Physician General.