By voting to discontinue adding fluoride to city water, Calgary City Council has done a disservice to the people it represents.
The health benefits of moderate amounts of fluoride – 0.7 parts per million – are well-documented. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control list water fluoridation as one of the 10 great public-health achievements of the 20th century.
Fluoride, a mineral found in rocks and soils, helps harden teeth and prevents tooth decay, especially among children. Children in most industrialized countries still get a lot of cavities, which can be painful, and expensive, to treat. Dental decay is the most frequent condition suffered by children, aside from the common cold.
Scientists agree that too much fluoride in children can cause dental fluorosis, a mottling of the teeth, which is usually just a cosmetic concern. Most fluorosis is caused by children swallowing toothpaste, which has thousands of times more fluoride than fluoridated water.
The European Union’s scientific panel reviewed the evidence last year and concluded there are no risks to most of the population when fluoride levels of less than 0.8 parts per million are ingested in drinking water. The Ontario Dental Association also found that in order for fluoride to harm your bones, you would have to drink 10 to 25 litres of fluoridated water at 0.8 parts per million every day for one to two decades.
But anti-fluoridation advocates advance another argument. They say fluoride is a medication, not a supplement, and should not be forced on people. They argue for the right to manage their own health. The Calgary decision sets a precedent for other Alberta municipalities, such as Lethbridge, where the debate is also under way.
It is true that many European cities do not fluoridate their water. But this is not because they don’t recognize the benefits. The water is naturally fluoridated at optimal levels, for example, in Denmark and Finland, and other countries, such as Germany, France and Spain, choose to add it to milk and salt.
Individual rights shouldn’t always trump the greater public good. Calgary’s decision not to add fluoride to drinking water is a blow not only to scientific consensus and the advice of 90 national and international health organizations, but also to common sense.