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July 12, 2012
WICHITA About 60 people — including a dozen doctors and dentists — gathered today to formally announce a campaign to persuade city officials to fluoridate Wichita's public water.
Members of Wichitans for Healthy Teeth — which includes about 500 area dentists and doctors — said they had gathered more than 5,500 signatures since June, when the group started a petition asking the Wichita City Council to add fluoride to the public water system.
The group's chair, Dr. Sara Meng, said that about 6,300 signatures were needed to put the proposal on the council's agenda. She said the group planned to approach the council before the end of the year.
"We're optimistic that we'll have a significant increase in petition signatures after this event," said Meng, a Wichita dentist. She said the campaign received a big boost after the Derby city council earlier this week voted to endorse the fluoridation campaign. Derby is a Wichita suburb and one of Wichita's largest water customers.
"If that is enough to influence the (Wichita) council, that would be fantastic. But I believe it could go either way — they can approve it or they could put it to a (citywide) vote," she said.
The campaign is the first since 1999, when the Sedgwick County Board of Health passed a proposal to fluoridate Wichita's water. However, then-Mayor Bob Knight did not put the proposal on the agenda, saying it was too controversial and divisive. Among the concerns cited by opponents of water fluoridation is that overexposure to fluoride in children can lead to fluorosis, a condition that permanently stains teeth.
Adding fluoride to a community's water system has been shown to reduce tooth decay. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counts fluoridation among the top 10 public health achievements of the last century, alongside using vaccines to control infectious diseases such as smallpox, typhoid and plague.
Nationwide, about 74 percent of people have access to publicly fluoridated water, according to the CDC. In Kansas, the rate is 65 percent.
Of the 50 largest U.S. cities, 44 add fluoride to the public water supply. Wichita is among the six that do not.
Coalition members said with a small investment — about $2 million initially and about $150,000 annually, they estimate — millions of dollars a year would be avoided in dental work.
"Fluoridated water can reduce decay by about 25 percent," Meng said. "A very conservative estimate of how much can be saved is $4.5 million annually, in preventing fillings and basic services. That does not count all the crowns, root canals and other major services."
She said fluoridating water is a critical part of oral health care, along with eating a healthy diet, brushing and flossing teeth, and making regular trips to the dentist.
"Toothpaste and all the products we have that contain fluoride have a higher level of fluoride, but it only remains on the teeth for only a few minutes to hours. Whereas continual drinking water that contains fluoride gives better topical protection during the day. With fluoride, it's not always how much, it's how often," Meng said.
Before the event, Michael Hicks, executive director of Wichitans for Pure Water, said Wichita opponents of fluoridation number "in the hundreds, definitely — if not thousands."
He said the opposition to fluoridating public water is based "on principle and on science."
"We shouldn't use the water supply as a vehicle to deliver medicine," Hicks said. "We're only putting it in the water to treat a minority of high-risk individuals who would be better cared for if we gave them access to topical fluoride."
Hicks said that many opponents believe that scientists who have expressed concerns about the health effects of the compound used to fluoridate most public water in the U.S., fluorosililic acid, have been marginalized by the larger scientific community.
"Until we know the full scope of its effects, we don't need to be putting it in our water for everybody to be exposed to," he said.
Meng said opponents "come out of the woodwork" whenever fluoridation is proposed in Wichita. She said she suspected that robo-calls in the area were paid for by groups from New York and abroad, who see Wichita's lack of fluoridation as a feather in their cap.
As for doubts about the safety of fluoridating water, Meng points to the CDC's endorsement and the initiative's support from hundreds of Wichita dentists and doctors.
"The debate about the safety of fluoride is over," Meng said. "It's being used safely and effectively in communities across the country, and it is supported by sound scientific research. The question is whether we can get the people of Wichita the ability to benefit from it."
The KHI News Service is an editorially independent initiative of the Kansas Health Institute and is committed to timely, objective and in-depth coverage of health issues and the policy making environment. Find more about the News Service at khi.org/newsservice or contact us at (785) 783-2529.