PEVELY — Times are so hard for the St. Louis-area town of Pevely that the community hopes to save money by no longer topping up its public water with fluoride, which occurs naturally in the area's supply.
Dentists and the Jefferson County Health Department are protesting the decision, which the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Monday could save Pevely $8,000 to $10,000 a year.
County health director Dennis Diehl worries that families who can't afford fluoride products will suffer tooth decay. While fluoride occurs naturally in most water sources, it's usually not at an optimal level, he said.
"By fluoridating the public water system, everyone gets the benefit of that protection," Diehl said.
Cash-strapped Pevely, a town of about 5,400 residents, ran out of fluoride to add to its water supply at the end of May and hasn't bought any since.
Nearly three-fourths of the U.S. population receives a fluoridated public water supply, including the water supply in Columbia. The American Dental Association says community water fluoridation is the most effective public health measure to prevent tooth decay. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says adding fluoride to public drinking water is among the greatest public health achievements of the 20th century.
But recent studies indicate more fluoride may not be better. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services last year proposed changing the recommended fluoride level to 0.7 milligrams per liter of water. The standard set in 1962 provided a range of 0.7 to 1.2 milligrams per liter.
The change came in reaction to streaks and spotting on teeth caused by too much fluoride, which is also added to toothpaste and mouthwash. Some children also take fluoride supplements.
St. Louis cut the amount of fluoride it adds to its water supply last year, said Curt Skouby, the city's water commissioner. The city spends about $150,000 a year fluoridating its water. Fluoride occurs naturally in St. Louis' raw water at around 0.3 to 0.4 milligrams per liter. The city used to boost that to 1 milligram, but last year dropped that to 0.6 milligrams.
The chemical compound occurs naturally in Pevely's water at about the same rate, said Pevely water department supervisor Keith Ogle said. He said the city had been at the 1 milligram mark as well.
Jean Hagan, a dentist in Crystal City, near Pevely, lobbied the town to keep fluoridating its water. She said she can tell immediately if a patient has fluoridated water.
"It's night and day," she said of their tooth condition.
Pevely has had to make other budget cuts, too: A police officer who retired in April wasn't replaced, and the town doesn't plan to replace two public works employees who are leaving. Plans were even canceled for Pevely Days, a festival traditionally held in August.
City Administrator Jason Eisenbeis said he has received no complaints about dropping fluoride from the water supply, although he hopes financial conditions improve and fluoridation can restart.
Diehl expects the decision to prove costly for residents in the long run.
"It's certainly going to cost people money in the long run," he said. "Either to buy fluoride products or unfortunately to care for the extra dental care they're going to need."