For people who suffer from tooth decay, the consequences can be serious. Hundreds of thousands of school days are missed each year by children with toothaches or similar problems. Studies show that poor dental health is a leading factor driving people to hospital emergency rooms, where care is much more expensive for patients and taxpayers. Dental problems also can undermine a person’s ability to find and keep a job. For all of these reasons, preventing tooth decay is critical.
For more than 65 years, community water fluoridation (CWF) has been a cornerstone of America’s dental prevention strategies. CWF reduces cavities by making tooth enamel more resistant to decay and re-mineralizing damaged enamel.
Nearly all naturally occurring water sources contain fluoride—a mineral that has been proven to prevent, and even reverse, tooth decay.
Tooth decay is caused by certain bacteria in the mouth. When a person eats sugar and other refined carbohydrates, these bacteria produce acid that removes minerals from the surface of the tooth. Fluoride helps to remineralize tooth surfaces and prevents cavities from continuing to form.
Water fluoridation prevents tooth decay mainly by providing teeth with frequent contact with low levels of fluoride throughout each day and throughout life. Even today, with other available sources of fluoride, studies show that water fluoridation reduces tooth decay by about 25 percent over a person’s lifetime.
Community water fluoridation is not only safe and effective, but it is also cost-saving and the least expensive way to deliver the benefits of fluoride to all residents of a community. For larger communities of more than 20,000 people, it costs about 50 cents per person to fluoridate the water. It is also cost-effective because every $1 invested in this preventive measure yields approximately $38 savings in dental treatment costs.
This method of fluoride delivery benefits all people―regardless of age, income, education, or socioeconomic status. A person’s income and ability to get routine dental care are not barriers since all residents of a community can enjoy fluoride’s protective benefits just by drinking tap water and consuming foods and beverages prepared with it.
Fluoride from other sources prevents tooth decay as well, whether from toothpaste, mouth rinses, professionally applied fluoride treatments, or prescription fluoride supplements. These methods of delivering fluoride, however, are more costly than water fluoridation and require a conscious decision to use them.
The widespread availability of fluoride through water fluoridation, toothpaste, mouth rinses, and other sources, however, has resulted in the steady decline of dental cavities throughout the U.S.