Calgary city councillors discuss returning fluoride to water supply

little girl at the dentist
CC BY 2.0 MisMessie

One study and a pile of anecdotal evidence has shown that perhaps the decision to remove fluoride in 2011 wasn't such a great idea.

In 2011 city councillors in Calgary, Alberta, voted to remove fluoride from the city’s water supply. Now, five years later, some of them are urging the issue to be reexamined, in hopes that the water supply can be refluoridated.

This change of heart is due, in large part, to a study that was conducted by Alberta public health researchers, comparing the incidence of cavities in first-graders living in Edmonton (another large city in Alberta) and those in Calgary. The study, which was published in February in Community Dentistry and Oral Epidemiology, found that, “Trends observed for primary teeth were consistent with an adverse effect of fluoridation cessation on children's tooth decay, 2.5–3 years post-cessation.”

In the words of Jen Gerson for the National Post, “Calgary children’s teeth got relatively worse compared with those of their less wealthy, less educated counterparts in Edmonton.” It’s poor kids who suffer the most when defluoridation occurs. These are the kids whose parents cannot afford supplemental fluoride treatments, regular dental checkups, and rapid access to care when problems are detected. These kids don’t eat as well, nor are they as well educated in matters of oral hygiene.

Much of the debate around fluoride in Calgary has focused on the idea of personal choice. Says Dr. Richard Musto, chief medical officer for the city:

“Fundamentally, it comes down to ideology. There’s not any good evidence whatsoever to suggest that there are harms associated with it. So it’s more an ideology that, ‘I don’t want to have something that I’m not choosing to have’.”

This, despite the fact that the evidence for fluoride being so bad isn’t there and it is recommended by “every credible health agency one could name.” Gerson writes:

“Fluoride is, quite simply, not harmful when used in the marginal doses that First World nations adopt for their drinking water. Fluoride has been one of the most positive public health interventions in human history — especially for poor kids who don’t have the luxury of playing municipal politics or engaging in Socratic dialogues on personal choice.”

Despite the councillors’ decision to remove fluoride, enough concern was raised by local dentists for the city to allocate a one-time payment of $750,000 toward anti-cavity programs for children in need who are living in poverty. A portion of the money resulted in the Alex Dental Health Bus, a modern dental office in a bus that travels to high-risk schools, offering checkups and referrals.

Denise Kokaram is the program lead for the Alex Dental Health Bus. She told the National Post that she has encountered dental problems in Calgary similar to those she’s seen in Kenya, Rwanda, and Ethiopia, which she describes as heartbreaking. Her observations align with the anecdotal reports coming from Calgary dentists, who say they’re making more money filling cavities now than before defluoridation occurred, but feel it’s unethical to continue along this path.

Several councillors are asking for the issue to be reexamined.

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