In 1931, Dr. Frederick McKay concluded his 30-year investigation into why some children in Colorado had brown stained teeth but very little tooth decay. He discovered that water supplies with high levels of fluoride – a water-born mineral found in rocks and soil – caused the discoloration of tooth enamel and prevented tooth decay.  However exciting that moment of eureka must have been for Dr. McKay, it’s doubtful he ever imagined that adding fluoride to drinking water would eventually be named “one of 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
During National Public Health Week, Delta Dental encourages community leaders to support the fluoridation of their local water systems. Dr. McKay’s discovery was a boon for preventive health. It’s one of the easiest, most reliable ways to bolster the oral health of an entire community. Research studies have demonstrated how fluoride helps strengthen tooth enamel and remineralize teeth that have already been damaged by the early effects of tooth decay.
Although most community water supplies had naturally-occurring fluoride in their water, it was usually at too low a level to help prevent tooth decay, and sometimes at such a high level that it would damage the tooth surface and cause staining and pitting. It took scientists almost two decades after McKay’s discovery to determine the right balance between decay prevention and tooth staining. In 1945, Grand Rapids, Mich., became the first U.S. city to add fluoride to their water supply to prevent tooth decay in the population. The results were so dramatic – a sixty percent drop in tooth decay rates in the children – that other communities began adopting the practice. Today, almost 75 percent of the U.S. population using public water systems – nearly 200 million people – has access to fluoridated water.
Fluoride has not been without its detractors, however, as some people object to any additives to drinking water even when the effects are beneficial. Others proclaim that fluoride has harmful effects, although a large body of scientific studies over the years has not supported those concerns. It is widely known that fluoride can protect teeth across an entire lifetime. The brown staining noticed by McKay – now called severe fluorosis – only occurs when the teeth are developing below the gumline during early childhood. That is why early researchers looked for the proper balance of fluoride to put in water that would both help prevent tooth decay and eliminate risk for severe fluorosis among children.
With the economy struggling, many communities are unable or unwilling to fund community water fluoridation projects. In response, several Delta Dental member companies have helped provide funding for community fluoridation projects. It’s an important dental initiative that Delta Dental is proud to support in the interest of improving public oral health.
To see a video for additional information on this important public health subject, please click here.
The Story of Fluoridation by the NIDCR. http://www.nidcr.nih.gov/oralhealth/topics/fluoride/thestoryoffluoridation.htm. Accessed February 2012.