Water fluoridation to prevent tooth decay

Background

Tooth decay is a worldwide problem affecting most adults and children. Untreated decay may cause pain and lead to teeth having to be removed. In many parts of the world, tooth decay is decreasing. Children from poorer backgrounds still tend to have greater levels of decay. Fluoride is a mineral that prevents tooth decay. It occurs naturally in water at varying levels. Fluoride can also be added to the water with the aim of preventing tooth decay. Fluoride is present in most toothpastes and available in mouthrinses, varnishes and gels. If young children swallow too much fluoride while their permanent teeth are forming, there is a risk of marks developing on those teeth. This is called ‘dental fluorosis’. Most fluorosis is very mild, with faint white lines or streaks visible only to dentists under good lighting in the clinic. More noticeable fluorosis, which is less common, may cause people concern about how their teeth look.

Review question

We carried out this review to evaluate the effects of fluoride in water (added fluoride or naturally occurring) on the prevention of tooth decay and markings on teeth (dental fluorosis).

Study characteristics

We reviewed 20 studies on the effects of fluoridated water on tooth decay and 135 studies on dental fluorosis. The evidence is up to date at 19 February 2015.

Nineteen studies assessed the effects of starting a water fluoridation scheme. They compared tooth decay in two communities around the time fluoridation started in one of them. After several years, a second survey was done to see what difference it made. Around 70% of these studies were conducted before 1975. Other, more recent studies comparing fluoridated and non-fluoridated communities have been conducted. We excluded them from our review because they did not carry out initial surveys of tooth decay levels around the time fluoridation started so were unable to evaluate changes in those levels since then. We reviewed one study that compared tooth decay in two fluoridated areas before fluoridation was stopped in one area. Again, after several years, a second survey was done to see what difference it made.

Around 73% of dental fluorosis studies were conducted in places with naturally occurring – not added – fluoride in their water. Some had levels of up to 5 parts per million (ppm).

Key results

Our review found that water fluoridation is effective at reducing levels of tooth decay among children. The introduction of water fluoridation resulted in children having 35% fewer decayed, missing and filled baby teeth and 26% fewer decayed, missing and filled permanent teeth. We also found that fluoridation led to a 15% increase in children with no decay in their baby teeth and a 14% increase in children with no decay in their permanent teeth. These results are based predominantly on old studies and may not be applicable today.

Within the ‘before and after’ studies we were looking for, we did not find any on the benefits of fluoridated water for adults.

We found insufficient information about the effects of stopping water fluoridation.

We found insufficient information to determine whether fluoridation reduces differences in tooth decay levels between children from poorer and more affluent backgrounds.

Overall, the results of the studies reviewed suggest that, where the fluoride level in water is 0.7 ppm, there is a chance of around 12% of people having dental fluorosis that may cause concern about how their teeth look.

Quality of the evidence

We assessed each study for the quality of the methods used and how thoroughly the results were reported. We had concerns about the methods used, or the reporting of the results, in the vast majority (97%) of the studies. For example, many did not take full account of all the factors that could affect children’s risk of tooth decay or dental fluorosis. There was also substantial variation between the results of the studies, many of which took place before the introduction of fluoride toothpaste. This makes it difficult to be confident of the size of the effects of water fluoridation on tooth decay or the numbers of people likely to have dental fluorosis at different levels of fluoride in the water.

Authors' conclusions: 

There is very little contemporary evidence, meeting the review's inclusion criteria, that has evaluated the effectiveness of water fluoridation for the prevention of caries.

The available data come predominantly from studies conducted prior to 1975, and indicate that water fluoridation is effective at reducing caries levels in both deciduous and permanent dentition in children. Our confidence in the size of the effect estimates is limited by the observational nature of the study designs, the high risk of bias within the studies and, importantly, the applicability of the evidence to current lifestyles. The decision to implement a water fluoridation programme relies upon an understanding of the population's oral health behaviour (e.g. use of fluoride toothpaste), the availability and uptake of other caries prevention strategies, their diet and consumption of tap water and the movement/migration of the population. There is insufficient evidence to determine whether water fluoridation results in a change in disparities in caries levels across SES. We did not identify any evidence, meeting the review's inclusion criteria, to determine the effectiveness of water fluoridation for preventing caries in adults.

There is insufficient information to determine the effect on caries levels of stopping water fluoridation programmes.

There is a significant association between dental fluorosis (of aesthetic concern or all levels of dental fluorosis) and fluoride level. The evidence is limited due to high risk of bias within the studies and substantial between-study variation.

Read the full abstract...
Background: 

Dental caries is a major public health problem in most industrialised countries, affecting 60% to 90% of school children. Community water fluoridation was initiated in the USA in 1945 and is currently practised in about 25 countries around the world; health authorities consider it to be a key strategy for preventing dental caries. Given the continued interest in this topic from health professionals, policy makers and the public, it is important to update and maintain a systematic review that reflects contemporary evidence.

Objectives: 

To evaluate the effects of water fluoridation (artificial or natural) on the prevention of dental caries.

To evaluate the effects of water fluoridation (artificial or natural) on dental fluorosis.

Search strategy: 

We searched the following electronic databases: The Cochrane Oral Health Group's Trials Register (to 19 February 2015); The Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL; Issue 1, 2015); MEDLINE via OVID (1946 to 19 February 2015); EMBASE via OVID (1980 to 19 February 2015); Proquest (to 19 February 2015); Web of Science Conference Proceedings (1990 to 19 February 2015); ZETOC Conference Proceedings (1993 to 19 February 2015). We searched the US National Institutes of Health Trials Registry (ClinicalTrials.gov) and the World Health Organization's WHO International Clinical Trials Registry Platform for ongoing trials. There were no restrictions on language of publication or publication status in the searches of the electronic databases.

Selection criteria: 

For caries data, we included only prospective studies with a concurrent control that compared at least two populations - one receiving fluoridated water and the other non-fluoridated water - with outcome(s) evaluated at at least two points in time. For the assessment of fluorosis, we included any type of study design, with concurrent control, that compared populations exposed to different water fluoride concentrations. We included populations of all ages that received fluoridated water (naturally or artificially fluoridated) or non-fluoridated water.

Data collection and analysis: 

We used an adaptation of the Cochrane 'Risk of bias' tool to assess risk of bias in the included studies.

We included the following caries indices in the analyses: decayed, missing and filled teeth (dmft (deciduous dentition) and DMFT (permanent dentition)), and proportion caries free in both dentitions. For dmft and DMFT analyses we calculated the difference in mean change scores between the fluoridated and control groups. For the proportion caries free we calculated the difference in the proportion caries free between the fluoridated and control groups.

For fluorosis data we calculated the log odds and presented them as probabilities for interpretation.

Main results: 

A total of 155 studies met the inclusion criteria; 107 studies provided sufficient data for quantitative synthesis.

The results from the caries severity data indicate that the initiation of water fluoridation results in reductions in dmft of 1.81 (95% CI 1.31 to 2.31; 9 studies at high risk of bias, 44,268 participants) and in DMFT of 1.16 (95% CI 0.72 to 1.61; 10 studies at high risk of bias, 78,764 participants). This translates to a 35% reduction in dmft and a 26% reduction in DMFT compared to the median control group mean values. There were also increases in the percentage of caries free children of 15% (95% CI 11% to 19%; 10 studies, 39,966 participants) in deciduous dentition and 14% (95% CI 5% to 23%; 8 studies, 53,538 participants) in permanent dentition. The majority of studies (71%) were conducted prior to 1975 and the widespread introduction of the use of fluoride toothpaste.

There is insufficient information to determine whether initiation of a water fluoridation programme results in a change in disparities in caries across socioeconomic status (SES) levels.

There is insufficient information to determine the effect of stopping water fluoridation programmes on caries levels.

No studies that aimed to determine the effectiveness of water fluoridation for preventing caries in adults met the review's inclusion criteria.

With regard to dental fluorosis, we estimated that for a fluoride level of 0.7 ppm the percentage of participants with fluorosis of aesthetic concern was approximately 12% (95% CI 8% to 17%; 40 studies, 59,630 participants). This increases to 40% (95% CI 35% to 44%) when considering fluorosis of any level (detected under highly controlled, clinical conditions; 90 studies, 180,530 participants). Over 97% of the studies were at high risk of bias and there was substantial between-study variation.

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