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SATURDAY’S CHILD: Sage dental advice

Tony Deyal

SATURDAY’S CHILD: Sage dental advice

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I read a newspaper report about Romania recently that would make Oral B, Crest, Sonicare and all the other toothbrush manufacturers bristle, fly off the handle or extend their Reach. The Telegraph reported that rural Romanians change their toothbrushes once every ten years.

This was one of the findings of a study by an organization known as Smile Romania, which made the discovery. It was not surprising that the study also found that toothpaste usage in Romania was the lowest in the European Union. The Telegraph quotes a dentist, Dorin Risnoveanu: “The situation is worrying as there is a link between bad dental habits and dental disease . . . . Most Romanians do not even use [a toothbrush] once a day.” Risnoveanu added that 80 per cent of the population had some form of “dental disease”.

In the urban areas of Romania the “life expectancy” of a toothbrush is lower, just about two years, but even that is much longer than dentists or toothbrush companies would like. They feel that if you have a toothbrush for more than three months you are jeopardizing your dental health and their profits.

Of course, if your toothbrush lasts ten years, your toothpaste will also be around for a while. The study also revealed low toothpaste consumption rates, with figures showing that on average a Romanian used only one tube of toothpaste in a year. The European average is five tubes and so Romania has the lowest consumption rate in the European Union.

I am not sure how long we keep toothpaste or toothbrushes in the Caribbean. However, I can still remember growing up at a time when toothbrushes and toothpaste were relatively new in the country areas. Some people used a piece of green stick broken off from one of the plants that were quite common in their yards, most of the hibiscus or “mahoe” family or black sage. Some people used twigs from the “neem” tree.

The people of Indian descent called the teeth-cleaning stick a “datwan” but these sticks are known as “miswak” in Arab countries. What I did not know at the time was that the usage of these bits of twig for oral hygiene goes far back in history. While ancient bush used the compact model, modern “science”, manufacturing and marketing separated the stick from the medicine and made huge profits from each.

According to Wikipedia, these teeth cleaning twigs, twig and bush toothbrushes have antimicrobial properties and can help prevent tooth decay and gum diseases, the same problems that Romanians are suffering from. Interestingly, one end of the stick was used as a toothbrush and the other was used as a toothpick, both purposes consistent with modern dental advice for cleaning. In fact, my uncle used to scrape his tongue with the piece of metal that was peeled off the Klim milk tin and now a dentist is recommending I do the same but with a different instrument.

The earliest chew sticks were discovered in Babylonia in 3500 BC and dental hygiene sticks were also mentioned in Chinese records dating from 1600 BC. In Africa, chew sticks are made from the tree salvadora persica, also known as the “toothbrush tree”. This is also common in Jamaica and the region. In South Africa it was found that the toothbrush tree yielded a drug called diospyrin, which is supposed to be effective against tuberculosis.

So if you can get toothbrush and toothpaste from the same free source, as we used to, do we need toothbrushes? Sally Fallon, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a non-profit nutrition education foundation says that in traditional societies that have not access to Western foods with processed sugars and white flour, many of these indigenous people have no cavities, and flash smiles with perfect pearly white teeth, even though tooth brushing is rare (or was rare, depending on the society). “However, within a very short time of forgoing their traditional, native diets, though, cavities become evident,” says Fallon, adding that the next generation of natives who eat processed food will begin to develop crooked teeth.

We in the region saw the toothbrush and toothpaste as symbols of modernization, part of the new American culture that, in Trinidad, was a by-product of the American bases that were built  during the Second World War and the “rum and Coca Cola” culture that developed subsequently. One of my relatives sold her “Morris” chairs to buy a “chrome” set that rusted very quickly and all the screws holding the padded lumps of hand-rests fell out. Very quickly, Colgate put a smile on our faces and when Pepsodent followed, we kept wondering where the yellow went. It was the Crest of a new wave. Holsum bread was not wholesome and consumerism was Paramount.

Now it is ironic that many of the new toothpastes have neem and some of the other ingredients of the toothbrush trees. Is there a lesson in this for the Romanians?  Stop eating processed sugar and white flour and import some toothbrush trees from Jamaica, where they are no longer used for that purpose.

• Tony Deyal was last seen saying that in Romania you can trade in your old toothbrushes for new ones. The question is, what happens to the old ones? Are they advertised as “hardly used”?

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