Discovering the Benefits of Fluoride

In previous articles we explained the benefits of fluoride for your dental health. Specifically, fluoride binds the calcium and phosphate necessary for strong teeth to your enamel, preventing tooth decay. How was this beneficial role of fluoride discovered? The discovery of fluoride’s role in dental health began in the Old West town of Colorado Springs at the turn of the last century.

Dr. Frederick McKay was a Massachusetts dentist setting up a practice in Colorado Springs. A busy mining and resort town in 1901, it was a logical place for a practitioner heading “out west” to start a business. One of his first observations of patients and local citizens was that those who grew up in Colorado Springs tended to have brown-stained teeth. At the same time, their teeth were strong and resisted tooth decay. Given turn-of-the-century dental hygiene, the trade-off was likely worth it! McKay publicized this discovery with the help of an eminent American doctor, G.V. Black, which led to more towns sharing their tales of stained teeth with the dentists.

McKay traveled the United States to investigate these other locales. In Oakley, Idaho, it was possible to identify the town water source as the cause of the brown teeth and strengthened enamel. The chemistry available to McKay in 1923, however, could not identify the molecules causing the phenomena. To him, the water seemed normal. Discovering the fluoride difference would take the efforts of another scientist, chemist H.V. Churchill of the aluminum company ALCOA.

McKay had visited Bauxite, Arkansas, a company town sponsored by ALCOA, in 1930 and reported on his findings. As a result, Churchill tested the town water simply to demonstrate that aluminum was not involved in making the teeth brown. When he applied water samples to photospectrographic analysis, a method McKay had not used, fluoride was surprisingly discovered in relatively high concentrations. Churchill immediately sent a letter to Dr. McKay in January of 1931, solving a thirty-year search for the cause of Colorado Springs’ strong teeth!

Numerous studies were immediately undertaken by national scientists to identify fluoride’s role in stronger teeth, how much was necessary to create a beneficial effect and and at what point fluoride started to turn young teeth brown, which came to be called fluorosis. From these investigations and ongoing studies we now know that only one part per million of fluoride in water is enough to produce healthful dental effects. Citizens of Colorado Springs, however, were receiving three times that much fluoride from their historical water supply, likely due to fluorite minerals found throughout the Pike’s Peak watershed.

The vast majority of Americans are at no risk of fluorosis. They have not spent a lifetime of drinking water that has been in direct contact with fluoride minerals! Patients that demonstrate fluorosis today usually just have white streaks on their teeth, generally noticed only by their dentist. Actually, with the growth of the bottled water industry and reverse osmosis filtering at home, many dentists and dental organizations are concerned about the opposite problem — some children and adults are receiving little of the fluoride added to the water supply.

Studies clearly show that fluoride in our water and in toothpaste leads to stronger, healthier teeth. A regular part of the water supply of many cities since the 1950’s, fluoride has proven to be a preventative benefit to our health over more than sixty years of municipal use. If you have questions about your family and whether or not you are receiving enough fluoride, feel free to discuss the matter during your next appointment with the dentists of the Sacramento Dentistry Group.

Sacramento Dentistry
  • Jessica (@squareduptweets)
    Posted at 13:34h, 03 September Reply

    This was so interesting!
    What should a person do who drinks bottled water and is not getting any fluoride from tap water? Is the fluoride in toothpaste enough?
    I remember getting those horrid fluoride treatments as a kid. I guess that wasn’t such a good idea, because too much doesn’t sound like a good thing either.

  • Myra
    Posted at 08:10h, 04 September Reply

    Very cool article. It would be an interesting “would you rather” to contemplate… would you rather have white and weak pearly whites or brown strong teeth? Fortunately, we don’t have to choose these days!

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