The government will today take a controversial step towards its aim of tackling health inequalities by putting down legislative proposals to make it easier to fluoridate the water supply in areas affected by high levels of tooth decay.
The House of Lords will vote on a government amendment which will indemnify water companies against the cost of any liabilities arising from fluoridation, a move which is expected to persuade them to cooperate with health authority requests to fluoridate the supply in deprived areas.
If the amendment to the water bill is accepted by the Lords it will pass to the Commons in the autumn where MPs will have a free vote. This issue triggers passionate pro and anti feelings across the political divide. At least two members of the cabinet are thought to be opposed to fluoridation.
If the amendment is carried today and later in the Commons, it is likely to spark a series of fierce local debates – possibly concluded by local referendums – in areas which are thought most likely to benefit from fluoridation.
Anti-fluoridation campaigners point to concerns over the possible link between fluoridation and cancer and other diseases. There is also disquiet that fluoridation infringes the civil liberties of people who do not want to receive it in their water supply.
Pro-fluoridation critics, including many dentists and public health experts, say fluoridation offers huge oral health benefits especially to young children. They argue there is no clear evidence of a link between fluoridation and cancer.
The amendment was welcomed by Andy Burnham, the Labour MP for Leigh, whose pro-fluoridation early day motion in January has since garnered the support of at least 147 MPs.
Writing today for SocietyGuardian.co.uk Mr Burnham called fluoridation “a progressive change that will benefit millions.”
Attacking the anti-fluoride lobby as a “vocal minority” Mr Burnham said: “If this issue causes controversy, it should be because of the scandal that we know of the inequalities in children’s dental health – and of a safe and proven means of narrowing them – and yet fail to use it.”
The amendment will close a loophole in the Water (fluoridation) Act 1985 that allowed health authorities to request water companies to fluoridate but which did not oblige the companies to do so. No fluoridation schemes have been implemented under the act.