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The curious discovery of fluoride as a preventer of tooth decay

Fluoride is a natural mineral commonly found in food and water, and is nature’s defense against tooth decay. Every day, enamel on your teeth is lost to “demineralization”, which is essentially the destruction of the outer layer of your teeth. The good news is that your body naturally remineralizes your teeth to get this layer back and fluoride can be used in the remineralization process to create a stronger, more decay resistant tooth than you had before.  Today, fluoride is a key ingredient in most toothpastes and drinking waters.

How fluoride was discovered to have such beneficial properties is a very interesting story. It begins in Colorado Springs, CO in 1901 when Dr. Frederick McKay, a young dentist who moved west to open his practice, noticed a very strange phenomenon amongst his patients: they all had an unsightly brown stain on their teeth.

There were two very peculiar observations about this already inexplicable situation. Firstly, the staining was contained to his community — people in surrounding towns didn’t have it. Secondly, the staining had no negative effect on dental health; quite the opposite in fact. The people of Colorado Springs were surprisingly resistant to tooth decay.

Dr. McKay had a sneaking suspicion that there was something in the water causing this, but with no apparatus to comprehensively test, his hypothesis remained just that for decades. Then the phenomenon began appearing in other parts of the county and the US Department of health got involved. Using more advanced machinery, they tested the water supply in all the places where the staining was happening and, as per Dr. McKay’s hunch (he was involved the whole way), there it was: increased fluoride levels in the water.

After much further testing occured, it was discovered that the natural levels of fluoride in these particular water samples were high enough to cause the staining. They further found that by maintaining an optimal level, they could stop the browning, but still help prevent tooth decay. This discovery has been listed by the US Center for Disease Control as one of the ten greatest public health achievements of the 20th century.

Today, drinking water in most urban centres is lightly fluoridated to promote dental health – but not too much to cause those unsightly Colorado Springs stains.