Opinion: Water fluoridation — The compassionate choice for good health

by Melanie Davis
Share This Article

Carmen Rubio, executive director of the Latino Network Carmen Rubio, executive director of the Latino Network
By Carmen Rubio, Latino Network
  Last year, Latino Network’s board of directors and staff chose to support water fluoridation because we see it as a basic public health service and a social justice issue. Nearly 100 percent of the families we work with live in poverty. Access to basic human services such as dental care is not something ever taken for granted by the communities we work with. We regularly see the result of this disparity in our work with youth — young people with severe dental decay and loss, who end up missing school due to dental pain, trips to the emergency room, or who end up feeling embarrassment and shame because of visible dental decay. Over the years our staff would take several youth to free dental care services that were offered annually, which often would require follow up work or visits. In one of our programs working with adjudicated youth and families, we have paid hundreds into thousands of dollars over the years for youth or their family members to receive urgent dental services, costs that could have been prevented through preventive care like water fluoridation. I understand this is a charged issue for many people. However, I doubt that many of the detractors know the people we know -—the family of the little girl with capped teeth, the young man trying to stay out of trouble, but whose missing teeth create false impressions in others about his personal potential, or the young girl who is too embarrassed to smile. If you have experienced poverty firsthand — like several of us at Latino Network — it would be hard not to be a supporter of water fluoridation. I personally care about this issue because I have several family members who, to this day, experience the cumulative effects of poor dental preventative care and poverty. My cousin, whom I’ll call Miguel, was born and raised here in Oregon, is in his early 30s. He had five teeth pulled or capped by the time he was 7 years old. He’s had some troubles in his life, but he’s now worked hard to get to a place where he can support his four children as a single dad. He gets them ready for school, prepares their meals, and rides TriMet with them to go school clothes shopping. When you talk to Miguel, he doesn’t smile very much and laughs with his hand over his mouth, probably because of the several teeth he no longer has. Miguel’s dental issues have at least once resulted in a trip to the emergency room or caused him to miss work or things that a single dad of four children living in poverty must do to keep the household running. And now, three of his children have the same decay issues that he grew up with. Miguel is not alone. Many Portlanders, and too many kids, suffer from preventable dental pain. One in five kids in Portland suffer from decay. While all kids are affected, low-income and youth of color are disproportionately impacted. We see this every day. In a city that has publicly stated its commitment to equity in our community, we need to ensure that this inequity ends today. We need water fluoridation today. Last August, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report on oral health disparities. The report pointed out a number of ways that communities of color and low-income populations have less access to the prevention and treatment of dental diseases. Adults living in poverty or from communities of color are more likely to have lost their teeth. Employed Latino adults are twice as likely to have untreated decay as whites. Oregon Latino children suffer from 35 percent more untreated decay as whites. Water fluoridation would help with this. Children who are lower income and from communities of color are less likely to have dental sealants. That leads to greater cavities. Water fluoridation would help with this. Water fluoridation protects all of our teeth. But, when people do not have access to dental healthcare, it is even more important. Not having fluoridated water makes dental health disparities worse. That’s the bottom line. I care about water fluoridation because I care about my cousin Miguel and his kids, and the thousands of other children and families like his. Fluoridated water would narrow the gap between the privileged and the poor, and would help our community. Everybody wins when we have fluoridated water. Everybody wins when we have healthy teeth. It means lower dental care costs. It means your smile comes across better in the job interview. It means it is easier to eat a good diet. It means fewer infections can enter your body. For everyone’s health, let’s have fluoridated water. Please join me in voting YES for fluoridation on May 21.
Carmen Rubio is the executive director of the Latino Network. The Latino Network’s mission is to provide opportunities, services, and advocacy for the education, leadership and civic engagement of low income Latino youth, families, and communities in Multnomah County.