Since the city removed the tooth-preserving chemical, one study has determined that the decision led to an increase in tooth decay in children. [Note: this study was fatally flawed with key data omitted. See FAN’s critique]
It’s a contentious issue, with passionate advocates on both sides of the debate. What you might not know is the debate has over sixty years of history.
Whether you use a traditional toothbrush, or an electric one, chances are you’ve come into contact with fluoride. Many types of toothpaste that you buy at a grocery store contain fluoride as a way to fight tooth decay, and you’ll also be given it on a trip to the dentist.
Why drinking water?
In the 20th century, some cities added fluoride to their drinking water. They were following the advice of medical and dental experts who made the recommendations after 50 years of research, sparked by American dentist Frederick McKay.
While setting up a practice in Colorado Springs in the early 1900s, McKay noticed that many of the locals had large brown stains on their teeth.
Researchers later determined this was because of high concentrations of naturally occurring fluoride in the water supply. Back then, people called this the “Colorado Brown Stain.” Today, it’s referred to by the more scientific name of fluorosis.
This is a purely cosmetic condition, one that either turns parts of your teeth bright white or, in more extreme cases like McKay saw, a deeper brown.
Fluorisis is caused by exposure to fluoride, which raises a question: Prince George, B.C. has had fluoride in its tap water for over 50 years — so why doesn’t it have generations of people with brown stains or bright white spots on their teeth?
The answer is because researchers looking into the Colorado Brown Stain found that while high doses of fluoride can cause fluorosis, in low doses fluoride can help prevent cavities and dental decay, without causing the stains.
And once they figured that out, they embarked on what the American Center for Disease Control calls one of the greatest public health achievements of the 20th century: fluoridated drinking water.
Dispelling myths about fluoride
In 1949, in order to dispel some of the myths surrounding fluoride, Canadian Minister of National Health and Welfare Paul Martin funded research into sodium fluoride.
“There has been some misunderstanding about the value of the treatment,” read the statement announcing the research.
As soon as North Americans started putting fluoride in drinking water back in the 1940s, the debate was on.
Optimistic advocates predicted whole generations of children raised without cavities. Opponents, though, had different concerns.
Canadian broadcaster Gordon Sinclair famously challenged the practice of putting fluoride in Canadian drinking water.
“You know the proponents of this chemical have never claimed that is helpful to the teeth of people like you or me or any other adult or anyone over the age over the age of 14 or 15. And therefore, I thought that it could be given in alternate ways to the children,” Sinclair told the CBC’s Barbara Frum, decades ago on As It Happens.
“I’ve never opposed the fluoride, Barbara, but I’ve certainly opposed and continued to oppose the pumping of it into the public water supply.”
And Sinclair was not alone. In the United States anti-fluoride sentiment loomed large, even prompting parody in the film Dr. Strangelove, where a disturbed general thought called fluoridation a ” dangerous communist plot.”
Conspiracy theories abound
It may have been ripe for parody but for some the idea that fluoride was a Cold War plot was no joke.
Jonathan Kay is the author of “Among the Truthers,” an exploration of conspiracy theories from throughout U.S. history.
“The thing about fluoridation is it was one of the first big public health movements that really affected people on a everyday basis,” he said. “It was completely invisible and it was largely tasteless and you just had to go on trust that this chemical was going to improve your health rather than do bad things to you.”
And this was happening during a time when people were increasingly suspicious of science.
“There was the atom bomb and people were learning about radiation and radiation poisoning and that was something else that you couldn’t see but which could do horrible things to your body,” Kay said. “And so there was a lot of suspicion about drinking water, about what are we doing to our drinking water? Are we poisoning the population?”
Over the years the anti-fluoride debate has evolved from suspicious chemical to suspected communist plot to one of economics and ethics. Critics of fluoridation say it’s costly, when much of the water winds up on lawns and in bathtubs, and they raise the moral question of putting medicine in the water without the public’s consent—some saying the practice violates medical ethics.
Not so, says the pro-fluoride camp
When city council in Prince Georg, B.C., held a fluoridation debate, then medical health officer Dr. William Osei argued in favour. “It is important to vote yes to keep water fluoridation in Prince George,” he told council, “everyone benefits. Especially children and those with low incomes.”
In recent years, over 30 Canadian cities have decided to stop fluoridating water, including Windsor, Waterloo and of course, Calgary.
Dr. Sarah Hulland is a pediatric dentist in Alberta.
“We actually have an increase in the severity of the cavities that we do see, and we see an increase in the rate that the cavities actually go from a small spot to a very large painful cavity in the tooth,” she told CBC in Calgary.