Johnny Johnson Jr., DMD, president of the newly formed American Fluoridation Society (AFS) got into the fluoridation fight when local officials in his community of Pinellas County, FL, voted in 2011 to discontinue water fluoridation, citing concern that residents might be ingesting too much fluoride.
Dr. Johnson, who retired his pediatric practice when he became disabled with a wrist injury from a cycling accident, led the effort to get fluoride back into community water.
Dr. Johnson had done master's degree work in college regarding fluoride and was asked by the Florida Dental Association to become a spokesman on the issue.
"I worked a year trying to get the fluoridation policy changed," he told DrBicuspid.com.
"A local politician brought his child to my office and said he wouldn't change his mind because of government politics," Dr. Johnson recalled. The politician then told a newspaper that there was doubt about fluoride's safety. But when reporters called the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), they were told those concerns were 100% wrong.
Some 15 months later, several of the county commissioners were voted out of office, solely over the fluoridation issue, Dr. Johnson said. And the community's water was once again fluoridated.
"In the past, it's been 'science speaks for itself.' Well, no, science is not speaking for itself," Dr. Johnson said. "People are making conspiracy claims against it, and it's the same group of people who've taken up with the antivaccination folks."
How fluoride's benefits were discovered
In the early 1900s, Frederick McKay, a young Colorado dentist, noticed that many of his patients had brown stains (fluorosis) on their teeth but no caries. Public health officials determined it resulted from high levels of naturally occurring fluoride in the Colorado River.
Subsequently, the U.S. Public Health Service decided to add fluoride to community drinking water, Dr. Johnson explained. Fluoride, which is released from ground sediment, is the 13th most abundant mineral on earth, he noted.
In 1945, Grand Rapids, MI, became the first U.S. city to fluoridate its water. A study subsequently showed that children who drank fluoridated water from birth had 50% to 63% less dental decay than children in nonfluoridated Muskegon, MI (Journal of the American Dental Association, December 1962, Vol. 65:6, pp. 780-785).
In addition to Dr. Johnson, the society includes Massachusetts dentist Myron Allukian Jr., DDS; Oregon physician Chuck Haynie, MD; Oregon dentist Kurt Ferre, DDS; and North Carolina dentist Steve Slott, DDS. Dr. Johnson said they wanted to form an independent group to offer healthcare providers accurate information about fluoride.
Healthcare organizations tell people to ask their dentist or physician about it, Dr. Johnson said.
"But frankly, we're not trained well on how to speak to the antifluoride side; we're trained on what the science behind it is," he noted.
Some 75% of U.S. water systems are now fluoridated, according to the CDC. The only large city that doesn't is Portland, OR. City officials approved adding it to their water in 2012, but opponents managed to get a referendum on the ballot, and the approval was overturned in 2013.
The AFS's main goal is helping communities fight attempts to roll back community water fluoridation. Opponents to community water fluoridation have sent mass emails and approach officials who are sympathetic to their arguments, Dr. Johnson said. They also bring up the issue during budget meetings, claiming fluoridation is too expensive and doesn't work.
"That's a common ploy," Dr. Johnson said.
He recently spoke to public health officials in Kansas who are fighting antifluoridation efforts.
"It was a very critical meeting because they needed to know how to pushback," Dr. Johnson said.
His group's efforts include helping via email and providing information to advocates and local leaders in person and by phone.
"It's very difficult for physicians or dentists to take time away from their practice to do this because it's time-intensive," Dr. Johnson explained. "We coach them, talk them through what they're facing, including laypeople that just take this on. They're fighting this battle because they know the benefits."
The group also helps advocates educate politicians on the issue.
"It has just has enough people supporting it that politicians think they'll get ahead by using it," Dr. Johnson said.
"We have to educate our educators; we have to be there to help those out in the field to fight this battle, so students, physicians, and dentists who are up and coming understand the issue and have the necessary information," he added.
Misunderstanding the issue
Even educated people can misunderstand the fluoride issue, Dr. Johnson said. He recalled attending a 2014 meeting of the American Public Health Association, where he did a presentation on ground water and fluoridation. Later, he spoke with a woman who was getting her doctorate in public health. She had breast cancer and told Dr. Johnson she thought that it may have come from "something in the water."
"I thought she was kidding, but she was serious," he recounted. "I explained there's been no literature that found any connection whatsoever between water fluoridation and cancer, and I sent her information. She was blown away by the research and said she had definitely been misled."
In another incident, a public health student told him there was "lots of debate about toxins and arsenic in fluoride." Dr. Johnson replied: "There's no debate; the science is crystal clear."
What dentists can do
The main thing that healthcare professionals can do is be aware of what's going on in their communities regarding water fluoridation, Dr. Johnson advised. Letters to newspapers and noticing what people are saying about the issue are tip-off's about efforts against community water fluoridation.
People should contact the AFS for help, Dr. Johnson recommended.
"We'll spring into action with every other group that needs to know about it," he promised.
Until now there hasn't been one group that can provide resources, he noted. People can go to local health departments, but a lot gets lost along the way, Dr. Johnson said.
"Unfortunately, it gets going in different directions and gets sidetracked. We can help coordinate their efforts locally," he said.
The group has received a grant from the Delta Dental Foundation of California and will seek additional funding from other foundations and individual donors. Dr. Johnson noted that none of the board members will be paid, other than for travel-related expenses.