MOUNTAIN LAKE PARK -- Fluoride has been a fighting word in Western Maryland for nearly 40 years.
But with tooth decay rampant among children in the region, this former railroad resort in Garrett County is preparing to reopen the old debate about whether to put the cavity-fighting chemical in its drinking water.
"The time for this has long since come," says Mayor Paul Shockey. The 65-year-old former county roads chief says that a citizen committee is expected Jan. 11 to recommend adding fluoride to the water the town furnishes to about 1,500 families on the outskirts of Oakland.
If Mountain Lake Park does put fluoride in its water, it will be only the second town in Maryland's westernmost county to do so. Oakland, the county seat two miles away, has been treating its water for 30 years, but it is a rarity. Allegany County is fluoride-free; voters in Cumberland ousted a pro-fluoride mayor a decade ago and reversed a short-lived decision to fluoridate that city's water.
"It continues to be a real hot-button issue up there," says Dr. Harry Goodman, director of oral health for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Dental health advocates have taken heart from the decisions by three small communities in the past year to join the fluoride fold -- Middletown in Frederick County, and Boonsboro and Keedysville in Washington County.
Root canals on 3-year-olds
Fluoride can't come soon enough for Dr. William Yant, an Oakland-area dentist. He says he sees too many children with decaying and rotting teeth -- conditions that might have been prevented, he contends, if only the youngsters had been drinking fluoridated water.
"It should almost be unheard of to be worrying about doing a root canal on a 3-year-old," says the dentist, 33. "But we see that commonly. One kid 4 years old had cavities on every tooth. You almost have to try to make that happen."
But Wayne Wilt, for one, says he won't drink Mountain Lake Park's water if it contains fluoride.
"I don't think it's necessary," says Wilt, a former town councilman. "I'm 62 and I have all my teeth." He worries the chemical will ruin the clean, fresh taste of the town's tap water, drawn from the same mountain aquifer as Deer Park bottled water.
"If people want fluoride," Wilt suggests, "they can go to their doctor or their dentist. I don't think it should be shoved down their throats."
Symbol of larger debate
The lines of debate in Mountain Lake Park echo those elsewhere in Maryland and the rest of the country, where fluoride remains at issue in rural areas and some cities.
Since it began shortly after World War II, fluoridation of community drinking water has been hailed by most doctors and dentists as one of the 20th century's biggest public health achievements.
It has sparked a fierce backlash, however, with opponents dismissing pro-fluoride research and warning of big-government or big-business conspiracies to contaminate water.
Studies indicate that fluoride can reduce or prevent the pain and expense of having decayed teeth filled or replaced. The chemical prevents cavities by countering the acids and bacteria in the mouth that break down tooth enamel.
Young children -- especially susceptible to decay because of their forming teeth -- can reduce their cavities by up to 60 percent if they drink fluoridated water, some studies suggest. Even adults may reduce cavities by nearly 35 percent.
Prompted by such findings, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called for getting 75 percent of Americans to drink fluoridated water by this year, up from 56 percent in 1992.
The national goal has been reached in Maryland, where 44 public and private utilities supply fluoridated water to 80 percent of the state's 5 million residents. Fluoride occurs naturally in some ground-water supplies on the Eastern Shore and in Southern Maryland.
A preventable problem
Even so, a 1995 survey by the University of Maryland found that tooth decay remains worse among children in this state than nationwide. Some of that may reflect lack of access to dental care. But the survey found that children drinking nonfluoridated water -- mainly in Western Maryland and on the Shore -- had 50 percent more cavities than those drinking treated water.
Tooth decay "is one of the most prevalent diseases," says Ann Sherrard of the Garrett County Health Department, "but it is one of the most preventable."
The move to fluoridate Mountain Lake Park's water comes at the urging of a retired dentist, J. Hopwood Wooddell, who first pushed for it nearly five years ago. Town officials dropped the issue that time without taking a vote.
"I just think the council [then] wasn't willing to take it on," says Ernest Gregg, a town resident who also is a county commissioner. "The present administration is pretty progressive."
Gregg, who runs a pharmacy in nearby Oakland, was on the City Council there when it decided 30 years ago to fluoridate despite vehement complaints from some.