Taking a Fresh Look at British Fluoride Study
In recent years, multiple studies have compared the impact of water fluoridation with communities that lacked access to this preventive health practice. Each one of these studies has revealed fluoridation’s benefits, but let’s take a closer look at the most recent study, which was conducted in England.
The purpose of CATFISH (Cumbrian Assessment of Teeth a Fluoride Intervention Study for Health) was to examine whether children in fluoridated areas of northern England had less decay than those living in non-fluoridated areas. The CATFISH study determined that children in the fluoridated areas had lower rates of tooth decay.
Yet, as one dental website observed, CATFISH offered “comparatively lukewarm conclusions” about fluoridation. In its story, the Guardian newspaper reported that the study showed that fluoridation “brings smaller benefits to children’s teeth than previously suggested.” However, a new commentary in the British Dental Journal pushes back on these interpretations.
The authors of this commentary contend that a careful analysis of CATFISH shows that fluoridation provided impressive benefits. The commentary explains that the differences between the fluoridated and non-fluoridated groups were downplayed because CATFISH reported the absolute difference, rather than the preventive fraction (PF). Here’s an example:
- If a public health strategy lowered a particular type of hospital admission from a rate of 20% to 15%, the absolute decline would be 5%.
- But calculating the PF (which is how researchers often measure this kind of change) shows a drop of 25% from the original rate of hospital admissions.
How would this change the interpretation of CATFISH? The CATFISH authors reported that the two cohorts of children in the fluoridated area had a decay prevalence that was 4% and 3% lower. However, if the differences are expressed as the PF, the differences are about 19% and 13% in the two age cohorts. As the commentary notes, “These PF percentages cast the outcome in a new light.”
The authors of the commentary also point out that circumstances required a water plant in the supposedly fluoridated area to stop providing optimal fluoride for about a year. Without this disruption, the differences in decay prevalence might have been greater.
The CATFISH study’s primary purpose was to monitor changes in decay prevalence. However, the commentary contends that the study largely overlooked a major difference in the extent of decay. Children in the fluoridated area were 36% less likely to suffer from rampant tooth decay (4 or more decayed teeth) than children who lacked fluoridated water.
The commentary concludes by summarizing findings from other recent studies from three other nations (U.S., Canada and Israel). These studies found that children’s decay rates or dental treatment costs rose significantly after a city or state ceased water fluoridation.