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More Fluoridated Water Needed, Officials Say

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles County health officials Monday called for additional fluoride in water throughout the county and state, in response to a new study that identified oral disease as the No. 1 health problem among California’s elementary-school children.

Though adding more fluoride is just one step that officials said is needed, “fluoridation is a cornerstone of the responses that we need to have,” said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director of public health for the county Department of Health Services.

Fluoride strengthens tooth enamel, which protects against decay. California has continually lagged the rest of the nation, with a little less than 30% of its population having access to fluoridated water -- compared to 65% nationwide, said Dr. Tim Collins, dental director of the county health services department.

Four of the 88 cities in Los Angeles County -- Los Angeles, Long Beach, Beverly Hills and Pico Rivera -- add fluoride to their water. Santa Monica and Inglewood plan to do so.

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The Metropolitan Water District, which delivers water to Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties, is scheduled to complete water fluoridation in 2007, said Dr. David Nelson of the California Health and Human Services Agency. The result will be “the largest single water fluoridation project in the United States,” Nelson said.

The Dental Health Foundation study, which screened 21,399 kindergarten and third-grade students at 186 schools statewide, found that two-thirds have experienced tooth decay by the third grade.

Twenty-eight percent of those surveyed showed signs of untreated decay. Children from low-income and minority families were more likely to suffer from oral disease than any other group, the study said.

Latino children demonstrated “the highest risk for dental health problems,” with almost twice the rates found among their Anglo counterparts, the study said. Seventy-two percent of Latino youths surveyed had experienced tooth decay, with 30% identified as needing treatment and 26% suffering rampant decay.

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As California’s Latino population continues to grow, those numbers have serious implications for the future and suggest that the prevalence of oral disease in the state is actually beginning to rise, said Wynne Grossman, executive director of the Dental Health Foundation.

Among 25 states with similar data, only Arkansas ranked below California in dental decay among its youngest residents.

The study also cited barriers to dental care as part of the problem, including lack of dental insurance and parental education. Its findings echoed a 2000 U.S. surgeon general’s report, which described oral disease as a “silent epidemic” throughout the United States.

“It’s important to recognize this as a serious health problem,” Fielding said. “It is a preventable epidemic, and we need to do more to try and erase it.”

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Besides fluoridation, Fielding and other dentists stressed the need for dental insurance, sealants on permanent molars and greater attention to proper tooth care from infancy.

Those measures might have made a difference for Maria Sanchez and her 10-year-old son Edward, who was getting his teeth cleaned Monday morning at the not-for-profit Children’s Dental Center in Inglewood. Edward started going to the center three years ago, after a school dental screening showed that his love for sour candy and ice cream had resulted in cavities.

Sanchez, who has no dental insurance, said she started taking Edward to the dentist when he was about 3. No doctor, she said, told her about the importance of getting to the dentist’s office earlier -- when Edward’s baby teeth appeared -- a step pediatric dentists recommend.

Education for parents such as Sanchez is key, Fielding said. “People think that dental decay is that it’s just the teeth,” he said. “But it affects everything you do.”

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