Fuzzy fears of chemicals trump sound science in fluoride debate

New research from Calgary shows that the city's decision to stop putting fluoride in the municipal water supply five years ago has, quelle surprise, led to an uptick in the number of cavities in children's teeth.

New research from Calgary shows that the city’s decision to stop putting fluoride in the municipal water supply five years ago has, quelle surprise, led to an uptick in the number of cavities in children’s teeth. It’s worth remembering that Whitehorse also abandoned fluoridation more than 15 years ago, with the same, predictable effect.

Yet while some Calgarians today hold out hope that their city council will now revisit their decision, nobody in Whitehorse expects the same. Enough time has passed that a fluoride-free city is now considered the status quo. And enough residents seem to be believe that fluoridation is suspicious, if not downright dangerous, that it seems unlikely that our municipal leaders will be willing to stick their necks out on the subject.

That is to say, it seems unlikely that our elected officials are willing to defend established science in the name of preventing our city’s children – a disproportionate number of them inevitably First Nation and poor – from having to endure the misery of rotting teeth and painful dental surgery. This is, in a word, shameful.

The introduction of fluoridation more than six decades led to such a dramatic decline in tooth decay that it has been hailed as one of the greatest public health achievements in the 20th century by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Today, the difference in dental health between communities with and without fluoridation is less pronounced than it once was, thanks to improved access to dental care and to flouride being added to toothpaste. But public health experts still estimate the measure helps reduce tooth decay anywhere between 20 to 40 per cent.

This benefit, and the lack of any credible evidence to support the claims of scaremongers who warn that fluoride is responsible for causing cancer and other health woes, helps explain why fluoridation of water continues to receive overwhelming support from medical authorities. That includes Health Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada, the Canadian Dental Association, the Canadian Association of Public Health Dentistry, the Canadian Dental Hygienists Association, the Canadian Pediatric Society and the Canadian Medical Association.

Yet in recent years about 30 different Canadian municipalities have abandoned the practice due to complaints by residents. Unsurprisingly, no amount of evidence to the contrary is enough to sway the staunchest opponents of fluoridation, since their views are not informed by science in the first place, but instead by a fuzzy concern about ingesting scary-sounding chemicals and a profound mistrust in the medical establishment. This is the same strain of paranoia that feeds today’s anti-vaccine movement, which we can thank for helping to allow once-vanquished preventable diseases to once again resurging today.

The chief opponents of fluoridation were once right-wing crackpots who reckoned that fluoridation was a communist plot to make the populace more docile. Nowadays, many of the fluoride fighters hold progressive political views. It’s not without irony that many in this camp have no trouble believing the complicated research that underpins the science of climate change, but are quick to throw themselves into mental contortions to reject the widespread scientific consensus that practices like vaccination and fluoridation are safe.

As with those who believe that climate change is an elaborate hoax, if you are intent on believing fluoridation is terrible, it’s easy to find some web sites – invariably peddling specious, anti-scientific claims – to support your views. But an expert panel convened by Health Canada concluded in 2008 that there is no real controversy over the safety of adding minute amounts of fluoride to drinking water. Nor is there anything unnatural about finding fluoride in drinking water – it continues to naturally occur in the stuff that Whitehorse residents drink, just not at the optimal amounts to best strengthen tooth enamel.

In terms of its modest expense – about $1 per resident annually – fluoridation is a remarkably cost-effective public health measure. While fluoridation benefits everyone, it particularly helps poor families, as the turmoil of poverty usually brings with it poor diets and poor dental hygiene. Those who insist that using fluoride should be a purely individual choice ignore those rather obvious realities.

If we are going to set public policy according to conspiracy theories, could we at least be consistent about it? Let Mayor Dan Curtis write to the U.S. government and demand an explanation about the real reason why the Twin Towers fell. Ask them, while we’re at it, to come clean about faking the moon landing. Show us that crash-landed UFO we know you’re hiding. And so on.

Maybe we could build a monument to one of these loony ideas. We could help pay for it with the money we’ve saved that could have been put towards helping protect children’s teeth.

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