Dentists stand up for fluoridation as voters across the U.S. take up the issue
December 05, 2017
Dentists around the country are working overtime correcting myths about fluoridation among municipal leaders and voters.
In many cases, when those deciding water fluoridation's fate in a community hear about its safety and benefits from dental and other health care professionals, they are moved to make decisions in favor of the public health benefit.
But sometimes, the misinformation about fluoridation that spreads online and sometimes by well-meaning neighbors wins out.
The ADA offers resources for dentists who need assistance in helping educate and inform their communities about the benefits of fluoridation. Visit ADA.org/fluoride
or email Jane McGinley, manager of fluoridation and preventive health activities at the ADA, at mcginleyj@ADA.org
Below are summaries of U.S. communities where the issue was undertaken this fall.
Rugby, North Dakota
A group of oral health advocates were responsible in part for a 5-2 Rugby City Council vote that maintained the city's ordinance mandating water fluoridation.
Dr. Paul Niemi, a dentist in the community for 32 years, collaborated with the North Dakota Dental Society, the state department of health and other local dentists, including Dr. Niemi's practice partner, Dr. Kathy Santjer.
The group met with council members in person to share facts; wrote letters to the local newspaper; spoke to local philanthropic groups; and talked with patients in the office about the importance of water fluoridation for the community, especially for children, Dr. Niemi said. The group also helped arrange a phone call between the council members and Kip Duchon, national fluoridation engineer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"It was the right thing to do and, for my community, I needed to make sure everybody knew the truth about fluoridation," he said.
Some in the community brought up plenty of misinformation about fluoridation, Dr. Niemi said, recalling an anonymous advertisement in the local newspaper that declared fluoride is poison.
Still, the science prevailed, Dr. Niemi said.
Despite the victory for public health Nov. 7, Dr. Niemi said he expects the issue to come up again in Rugby, since one person who spoke out against fluoride may run for local public office.
Port Angeles, Washington
Most voters here rejected a ballot question Nov. 7 that would've reintroduced fluoride to the municipal water supply in this city of about 20,000.
The vote is the latest in a heated public discussion about fluoridation ongoing in the community since early 2016, said Dr. Todd Irwin, a dentist in Port Angeles.
Dr. Irwin said at times council members were threatened during public meetings. At one point, the organized and outspoken group opposing fluoridation launched a failed campaign to revert Port Angeles to a "second-class city" with the goal of electing a new city council that excluded fluoridation supporters.
Dr. Irwin described the civic conversation, ripe with misinformation, as "a microcosm of what's going on" nationally related to distrust of government. In some local news reports about the fluoridation debate, those opposed to fluoridation in the city were quoted calling it "forced medication" or contending that it contributes to lower IQ and hypothyroidism.
Dr. Irwin was one of many local health care professionals and public health advocates who spoke in favor of fluoridation, met with council members to educate them or sent emails or had discussions with patients about it over the past several months, he said, adding that he did not know of any local dentists or physicians who opposed the efforts to fluoridate. The Washington State Dental Association also contributed resources.
While Dr. Irwin said many locals were willing to hear him out, often people "had already made up their mind."
"At what point did people stop believing their scientists and public health officials?" Dr. Irwin said."
Voters overwhelming said no to fluoridation on Nov. 7, with 57.5 percent voting against a proposition to reintroduction fluoridation.
Dr. Irwin said he anticipates the discussion to continue in Port Angeles, especially because three new council members were seated following the Nov. 7 election.
Despite the turmoil, Dr. Irwin said he would continue to educate the public and his patients about fluoridation's benefits.
"At the end of the day, you have to know you're trying to do the right thing," he said.
Voters here Nov. 7 overwhelmingly said no to reintroducing water fluoridation in this suburb of Austin.
Residents opposed to the city's decision to fluoridate the water supply after its water supplier stopped fluoridation asked the city to put the issue on the Nov. 7 ballot, according to a local news report. According to election results, 67 percent of voters said no to question asking whether the city should restart fluoridation.
Dr. Jonathan Kimes, an orthodontist in Austin and a board member of the Capital Area Dental Society who spoke at a public meeting in Buda about the safety and benefits of fluoridation, said he was unsurprised at the results.
"Anecdotal stories about the harmful effects of fluoride seems to hold more weight with the voting public than do the sound scientific principles of our research," said Dr. Kimes. "In our city, the anti-fluoridation group seemingly works round the clock when these issues come up."
Still, he said he believes dental professionals, as the "true experts in the field, owe it to the public and our patients to fight for their dental health."
"We should take every opportunity in our practices to speak on the benefits of fluoride. From oral hygiene exams, new patient exams, and especially social media," he said.
He also recommends that local dental societies should prepare for discussing fluoridation in their community, should the issue come up.
"As business owners, family people, community members, etc. we just don't always have the time as individuals to fight a good fight," Dr. Kimes said. "Every local dental society should have an 'emergency plan' in place, for when these topics do come up, it is often on short notice. Who is going to go talk and represent the dental community, what is he or she going to say? Prepare in advance and have your resources ready, and it makes the fight a much easier one."
Fluoridation will continue in this borough of about 3,000 after 61 percent of voters in October favored fluoridation. In the ballot question that asked whether the borough should prohibit the addition of fluoride to its public water system, 692 said no, while 430 said yes.
"The Alaska Dental Society is glad the Petersburg voters recognized the benefits of community water fluoridation and voted to continue water fluoridation in Petersburg," said Dr. Dave Logan, director of the Alaska Dental Society.