Every weekend and seemingly every spare hour in between, three Salt Lake Community College students canvassed local shopping malls this past holiday season.

While shoppers searched for gifts, Kim McCrady, Staci Medina and Kelly Gardner sought answers to the question whether Salt Lake County residents would support a referendum to fluoridate the county's tap water.The dental hygiene students surveyed 1,000 people to gauge attitudes about fluoridation and to determine how many people would need more information before casting a vote.

Although they launched the school project some three months before it was due, the students weren't prepared for the emotional outpouring they would encounter as they conducted interviews.

"One old man practically pinned me to a bench. He talked to me for what must have been 20 minutes," Medina said. "He was all into `this is a communist plot. The government shouldn't tell you what to do.' "

Others, particularly those who had moved to Utah from other states that have added fluoride to their water systems for decades, "were appalled we didn't have it. We found people who have had it in their water are so pro-fluoride."

The survey showed that 56 percent said they would support the issue if it was put to a vote, and 18 percent said they would vote no. Twenty-six percent were undecided.

Among people who said they would vote "no," 34 percent said they had health concerns about adding fluoride to the communal drinking water systems. Seven percent cited cost concerns, but 59 percent said they needed more information.

After years of scientific research, the public health benefit of fluoridated water is well documented, McCrady said. Yet, many people believe fluorine - a naturally occurring element - causes cancer or is poisonous.

"We found a lot of people are misinformed," she said.

Upon completing the survey, which was cross-tabulated by ZIP codes, the students approached dentists in areas where a particularly high number of respondents indicated they needed more information about the issue. They also mailed pamphlets to areas of the county that expressed concerns about cost and health risks.

McCrady, who has worked 10 years as a dental assistant before enrolling in SLCC's inaugural dental hygiene program, said she frequently encounters patients who have a mouth full of cavities - many of which could have been averted by using fluoride.

"You can tell people who were born and raised here. They have silver from here to here," McCrady said, tracing a line from cheek to cheek. "Once you start filling teeth, you keep going. Nothing's better than the natural tooth."

Gardner said the group's passion to conduct the survey was stirred each time they worked in a clinical setting as part of their dental hygiene training. "It really hit us when we saw elementary school kids and their teeth were totally bombed out."

The students' work was honored recently by the Utah Dental Association, where their booth was judged best student clinic statewide.

McCrady was recently nominated for the national Howard R. Swearer Student Humanitarian Award for her work on the project. Five winners will be selected, and each will receive $1,500 each.

"If we do win, we'd like to use the money toward brochures and bulk mailing, letting people know who use public health centers that adding fluoride to the water can reduce their own and their kids' dental decay," McCrady said.

While they admit they are passionate about dental health, none of the three young women views herself as a politico. When voters go to the polls to address the issue, they want them to make an informed decision.

"There's been lots of scare tactics used in the past in keeping some older Salt Lake residents from wanting to add fluoride to the water. And now some young parents don't even know what fluoride is," McCrady said.

"We're out to educate people of the benefits and have them make an educated vote. It's the most cost-effective and efficient way to help everyone, especially those children who are underprivileged and their families can't afford other alternatives. We can't cure what has already happened with adding the fluoridated water, but we can see big differences in the next five or 10 years," she added.

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Addtional Information

Survey

To complete a class assignment, three SLCC dental hygiene students surveyed 1,000 people in area shopping malls. Here's what their survey showed.

"If the issue of communal water fluoridation was voted on today , how would you vote?"

Yes 56%

No 18%

Undecided 26%

Survey conducted October-December 1997 by Salt Lake Community College dental hygiene students Kim McCrady, Staci Medina and Kelly Gardner.