On Wednesday, the small northern Ontario town of Cobalt voted overwhelmingly to become the first community in Canada’s largest province to turn back the clock on nearly four decades of public drinking water fluoridation in Ontario.
"The turnout was disappointing," said town councillor Vic Legault, who campaigned almost alone for 180 days to force a town vote and to educate area residents about what an increasing number of scientists are claiming is a clear health danger: the swallowing of fluoride. Still, 81 percent of voters rejected fluoridation and became the first in Ontario to do so.
Recently, Kamloops BC residents voted not to fluoridate following a debate in which University of Toronto’s head of Preventive Dentistry, Dr. Hardy Limeback stressed the folly of actually swallowing fluoride which he indicated, was derived directly from the smokestack "scrubbers" of the US phosphate fertilizer industry.
Fluoride is present in toothpaste, mouth rinses and through dental application and its direct physical contact with tooth enamel can reduce dental decay, although only marginally, according to a report by the Ontario Ministry of the Environment.
But ingesting fluoride, as is the case when the mineral is added to public water systems, has been declared to have no added benefit to dental health. Worse, say health groups, it results in fluoride build-up within the bones, brain and other areas. A number of studies have linked fluoridation with hip fractures and skeletal "fluorosis" (literally, poisoning by fluoride) — osteoporosis — as well as behavioural problems in children and increased cancer risk.
Legault had argued for six months that in an age of fluoridated toothpaste, adding fluoride to water was "all risk and no benefit". Dental groups still promote fluoridation while admitting an excess intake of fluoride can cause white-mottled, brittle teeth known as dental fluorosis.
The Cobalt plebiscite has resulted in international attention. Scientific and health groups around the world have witnessed a wholesale turning away from fluoridation for decades. Most areas have never fluoridated or have now stopped. Several EU countries including Denmark and Holland, have banned the practice altogether.
Only New Zealand, Australia and parts of the US and Canada still fluoridate public water. (Calgary, Ottawa and Toronto have reduced in recent years their fluoride concentrations out of fears that increased intake from other sources such as food and beverages manufactured with fluoridated water may cause toxic levels in the bodies of residents.)
However, while Vancouverites and Montrealers and other Canadians have rejected fluoridation, Ontario has long stood as the bastion of fluoridation with no real attention placed on the controversy — until now.
Letters and e-mails are pouring in to the tiny town with only 1000 eligible voters from overseas but Ontarians seem unaware of news or its significance.
"This has been a local fight," said Legault. "We never expected the world to react like this. It’s strange really. I guess we’ve started something."
"One of the smallest towns in Canada’s largest province has become the first to wake up and say ‘no’ to this insane practice," said Janet Budgell, head of Toronto’s Coalition Against Water Fluoridation (CAWF). "Cobalt is more progressive than Toronto in this."
Toronto introduced fluoridation in early 1963 after a 1962 plebiscite resulted in a vote of 50.1 percent in favour and 49.9 percent opposed. Toronto ex-councillor Tony O’Donahue, a water systems engineer, has long warned about health dangers of fluoridation but finds the apathy and "ignorance of Ontarians on this debate appalling." Mayor Mel Lastman could not be reached for comment.