Jennifer Ackerman, Deseret Morning News
Tasia Stevens, 7, a second-grader from Liberty Elementary in Murray, gets four teeth sealed during Sealants for Smiles on Tuesday.

MURRAY — A thin coating of plastic could be the key to saving thousands of Utah children from a lifetime of serious medical conditions caused by poor dental care.

A new partnership announced Tuesday will strive to protect the health of as many at-risk children as possible by making sure they get dental sealants early in their lives.

"I think that so many times we get focused on teeth, and we forget that teeth truly impact the entire body," said Roger Adams, president and chief executive officer of the new Dental Select Sealants for Smiles Foundation. "While we're talking about dental, it's the overall health that we're interested in."

The United Way of Salt Lake created the Sealants for Smiles program and has run it in Granite, Murray and Salt Lake school districts since March 2005. Since that time, more than 2,000 children have had their teeth sealed, nearly 3,000 children have been screened for existing dental problems, and 3,600 kids have been educated about proper oral hygiene.

"We've come a long way in just a few short years," said United Way president and chief executive officer Deborah Bayle Nielsen.

The goal of the expanded program is to build on United Way's success, and ultimately, reach out to all low-income children in Utah's elementary schools, said Adams, who spent 15 years in private practice as an oral and maxillofacial surgeon.

"We have in our back yard 26,000 children who are not going to receive dental care," he said. "That is a travesty."

Immediately, the program will serve first- and sixth-grade students in all Title I schools in Davis, Salt Lake, Summit and Tooele counties. Schools that qualify for Title I funding from the federal government have a large proportion of low-income students.

Hygienists, many of them volunteers and students, will travel to the schools to educate children about the importance of oral health and do screenings and apply sealants on site.

Dental Select, a Murray-based provider of dental plans, will cover 100 percent of the foundation's administrative costs, said Brent Williams, the company's president and chief executive officer.

Dental sealants are applied to the chewing surfaces of children's erupting molars, where 90 percent of tooth decay is formed. When used in combination with fluoride, Nielsen said, sealants are almost 100 percent effective at controlling tooth decay.

The procedure takes less than 10 minutes and is completely painless, as 7-year-old Andrew Stratton learned Tuesday. Wearing dark protective glasses, Andrew relaxed as hygienists painted the protective varnish on his teeth and waited for it to form a protective shield.

James Stratton, Andrew's father, is in between jobs after some medical problems of his own, so the family is without medical or dental insurance. And diabetes runs in the family, a condition that causes serious complications to oral health.

"It's great now that we know he's going to have a healthier life," said Andrew's mom, Kelly Stratton.

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