Student Well-Being

Good Grades? There Must Be Something in the Water

By Ross Brenneman — May 30, 2013 3 min read
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Voters in Portland, Ore., decided last week not to add fluoride to their drinking water, in the most contentious political battle of the season, and the fourth such vote in just under 60 years. Water politics might not seem like a contentious issue in education policy, but it’s not something to ignore, especially as research shows that good dental health supports good academics.

According to research released by the Pew Foundation in August 2012, an estimated 504,000 California children missed at least one day of school in 2007 due to oral health problems. And bad teeth (or the dentist-recommended solutions to bad teeth) can put children at risk of mockery. (Think of all the jokes about British teeth.) So schools definitely have a stake in water politics.

The majority of potable American water contains fluoride. This water runs through your sink and your shower and your water fountains. Fluoride can be found in water naturally, but state and local governments can add fluoride, too. Adjusted in the right amounts, studies show that fluoridation has significant dental benefits.

The fluoridation process began in Grand Rapids, Mich., in 1945, and now takes place throughout a majority of the country’s municipal water systems.

(Full disclosure #1: This writer was born and raised in Grand Rapids.)

(Full disclosure #2: The writer has never had a cavity. Coincidence? No idea.*)

Opponents of fluoridation say that local governments can’t guarantee safe amounts, and because of problems caused by excess fluoridation, water should be left alone. Excess fluoridation may cause various health problems, with the most likely being fluorosis, a condition that affects tooth enamel. There are also arguments about the ethics of what some deem to be forced medication.

Supporters of fluoridation, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Dental Association, hail it as one of the greatest public health achievements in American history, and say that fluoridation helps poorer communities that might not have the best dental care.

This post won’t get into the intricacies of fluoridation. This is Education Week, not Dentistry Week or Gingivitis Week or whatever. But even though fluoridation and dental care lack the razzle-dazzle of bigger education issues like charter laws or Race to the Top, physical health—including, yes, teeth—nevertheless plays a pivotal role in learning.

Naturally, there’s no all-accommodating solution.

Bottled water, for instance, has major drawbacks. First, the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t require bottled-water manufacturers to list fluoride content. (Here’s one list of likely non-fluoridated bottled water.)

Second, tap water might not seem as “clean,” or “pure,” or “magical mountain-oasis fresh” as bottled water, but that might be exactly why it’s potentially healthier. According to the hygiene hypothesis, the growing trend of sterile living environments in developed countries might actually be dampening children’s immune systems, by denying them access to various microbes. In a nutshell, it means that kids exposed to certain bacteria now and again—like the kind found in modern, potable American tap water—might suffer fewer allergies than children who wash themselves in Purell every 10 minutes.

(Full disclosure #3: Playing in dirt, a lot, did not help this writer avoid allergies.)

In schools, this means that for everyone who worries about the sugary drinks found in vending machines, bottled water is not a perfect alternative.

Mainstay water-filtration systems, meanwhile, leave in more of those microbes than bottled water, but they don’t filter out fluoride. (And proudly so.)

This gives a leg up to refillable bottles and water fountains, but then again, there’s that fluoride. For supporters, it’s great. For opponents, it’s a case of “water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink.”

*Pro Tip: Floss!

Image: The humble fluorine atom. Credit: Ross Brenneman

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.