RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
A little more than a decade ago, the city of Juneau, Alaska, became one of many American cities that stopped adding fluoride to its tap water. At the time, science predicted more cavities. That prediction has now proven true. From member station KTOO, Jeremy Hsieh reports.
JEREMY HSIEH, BYLINE: Jennifer Meyer is a public health researcher with a new study in the journal BMC Oral Health. She talks about tooth decay and cavities the way dentists do. She calls them caries. And after studying what happened in Juneau to children under 6, this is her takeaway.
JENNIFER MEYER: By taking the fluoride out of the water supply, the tradeoff for that is children are going to experience one additional caries procedure per year at a ballpark of $300 more per child.
HSIEH: She can talk about it in terms of money because she studied the complete set of Medicaid dental claims filed for kids in Juneau's main zip code. She's got a year's worth of data before fluoride went away and another year's worth after, for about 1,900 kids total.
When you talk about children under 6, here's what happened. When the water was still fluoridated, kids on average had about 1 1/2 cavity-related procedures per year. After fluoride was gone, that went up to about 2 1/2 procedures a year. And that got expensive.
MEYER: The cost to have a fluoride management program to actually fluoridate the water is pennies by comparison to what it costs to treat a cavity.
HSIEH: It could be more expensive for anyone, not just the public cost of providing dental care through Medicaid. But Meyer says people with less money are especially vulnerable when fluoride goes away. For example, people with more resources might choose to give their kids fluoride tablets. That would mitigate the absence of fluoride in the water supply for those children.
The new research isn't winning over longtime fluoride opponents like David Ham. He was active in the movement to take fluoride out of Juneau's water in 2006. He calls fluoridation a Band-Aid fix.
DAVID HAM: My issue is that we're asking the wrong question here. You know, and let's get to the root cause and put a tax on sugary drinks and all of these other things or do whatever we can to support good health through good diet.
HSIEH: Ham says community water fluoridation takes away his right to pure water. He also says fluoride is harmful. But the CDC, World Health Organization, European Union and other government and medical institutions have long held that low levels of fluoride in drinking water are safe.
For NPR News, I'm Jeremy Hsieh in Juneau.
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