Ontario’s Liberal government is poised to take over the decision of adding fluoride to municipal drinking water, which could change the course of a contentious three-year-old resolution by the City of Windsor to remove the chemical from its water supply.
The issue of whether or not to add fluoride in drinking water has become such a hot-button topic in municipalities like Windsor that the province is looking at stepping in by the end of the year.
Liberal MPP Bob Delaney (Mississauga-Streetsville) has already presented several petitions calling for change in the Fluoridation Act that would remove the responsibility from municipalities. He expects to have submitted up to 250,000 signatures calling for the change in the coming months and has support from local health units, including Windsor.
Mayor Drew Dilkens believes that can’t happen soon enough.
“Why leave this public health decision to municipal councillors — a vast majority who have no science background, no real ability to make a truly informed decision whether it’s safe to have fluoride in drinking water or not,” he said.
Windsor’s council, following a heated debate, voted in 2013 to remove the additive from drinking water against the advice of its own Medical Officer of Health. But councillors were convinced after community groups voiced concerns and presented evidence the chemical causes weaker joints and more broken bones over time. Council’s decision included a five-year moratorium before it could be revisited.
Some local dentists said recently they are seeing a spike in tooth decay among children since fluoride was removed.
Dilkens voted to remove fluoride and still supports that decision.
“I’m convinced there is at least a concern in the science community,” he said. “There are benefits (to dental health), but we don’t know the problems. It’s not an easy issue to understand.”
Regardless, local council should not be placed in a position to decide, Dilkens said. “An issue of public health should be mandated provincially one way or another,” he said.
Delaney said he supports having fluoride in the water system and while the desire for the change in legislation exists within government ministries, “you can’t presume the outcome of the deliberations. … My hope is to take the path forward and turn it into legislation.”
Far too often municipalities and their councils have been battlegrounds for the issue, Delaney said.
“You end up with the same battle over and over,” he added. “Many of the people involved with either side are often from outside Ontario. Just like smoking legislation, we need to make this a level playing field for everybody.”
An official with Ontario’s health ministry said no changes “at this time” are being contemplated for the Fluoridation Act, but the ministry supports including fluoride in drinking water.
“An estimated 72 per cent of Ontarians currently have access to fluoridated drinking water,” said spokesman David Jensen. “The ministry considers water fluoridation to be an important public health measure that prevents dental decay, reduces oral health inequities and improves health outcomes.
Windsor’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Gary Kirk agrees the decision needs to be made by the provincial government and not municipalities. The local board of health is among those on record calling for the change in legislation and also for fluoride to be included in drinking water.
“It would make it less ambiguous,” he said. “You need to take the pressure off municipalities for these decisions, whether they voted affirmative or negative. The province has access to the proper resources to determine whether it should be supported.
“The board of health continues to think it is a very necessary component of oral health and hygiene.”
Local MPP Percy Hatfield (NDP — Windsor-Tecumseh) was still on city council when the fluoride decision was made. He described it Monday as being his “least enjoyable time” as city councillor.
“You had so much passion from people on both sides,” Hatfield said. “We were hit with stacks and stacks of evidence — documents, (web) links, videos. The information was intense and so much of it was direct opposite of the other side of information.”
Hatfield said he voted to remove fluoride at the time based on Leamington which long ago removed fluoride from its water to accommodate Heinz which would not put it in its baby food.
But he has since changed his mind after talking to dentists from across Ontario and feels it should be mandated to be included in drinking water.
Hatfield believes the Liberal government will soon move to take the issue away from municipalities based on the number of petitions its MPPs at Queen’s Park, including Delaney, have presented.
“I want to have the province make the call,” he said. “You can’t have municipalities tearing each other apart on this. The (health) ministry should say this is the recommendation one way or another and move forward.”