How we learned to stop worrying and love fluoridated water


OPPONENTS OF water fluoridation on the North Shore may not believe, as a character in the classic 1964 satire “Dr. Strangelove” did, that adding fluoride to water is a communist plot. But their half-baked reasons for asking Rockport and Gloucester voters to end water fluoridation, in votes scheduled for this May and November, aren’t much more convincing than the Cold War-era conspiracy theories. Water fluoridation has been one of the greatest public-health successes of the last seven decades, leading to a dramatic decline in dental problems, and voters in the two municipalities should defend science and their own health by voting to keep fluoridation.

Nationwide, the gains have been impressive: Americans have saved billions on dental care and witnessed a remarkable culture shift. It’s no longer simply accepted that adults will lose their teeth as they age. The benefits are particularly strong for lower-income residents, who may not have as much access to adequate dental care. The practice ended a kind of geographic lottery, in which residents of areas with optimal natural fluoride levels had healthier teeth than people who lived in parts of the country with little natural fluoride.


Opponents point out, correctly, that fluoride can be dangerous in large quantities, and argue that adding it to water amounts to medicating residents without their permission. The safety concerns are disingenuous. It would require chugging gallon after gallon of fluoridated water to reach even a potentially dangerous level. Water itself can be fatal in large enough quantities, but nobody would seriously consider ending public water supplies because of the remote risk of water intoxication.

Nor is the idea that it’s forced medication particularly convincing. Fluoridation doesn’t introduce a new substance to drinking water; it instead brings the amount of the naturally occuring mineral to an optimal level. And nobody is forced to drink it: For North Shore skeptics who truly can’t stomach treated water, distilled water is cheap, and reverse osmosis water-treatment equipment can reduce levels of fluoride.


Like their soulmates in the vaccine-skeptic movement, opponents of fluoride are capitalizing on fading memories of what life was like before the introduction of scientific improvements that we now take for granted, and they’re putting broader public health at risk for the sake of fringe superstition. At a minuscule cost, fluoridation has improved the lives of millions of Americans, and should remain a key part of the public-health toolkit.