A health trust has become the first to force through a move to add fluoride to tap water to fight tooth decay in children.
The decision was made using new laws to introduce fluoridation, although three in four members of the public and a county council opposed it.
Adding fluoride to water has been described by critics as ‘mass medication’ of the population because, unlike chlorine, it is not added to make supplies safe.
Around 200,000 people in Southampton will be affected in an area where four in ten children have a filling by school age.
Dentists said it would reduce the number of decayed teeth.
Just 10 per cent of England’s water is fluoridated, covering 5.5million people, mainly in the north-east and west Midlands.
The last fluoridation scheme was introduced in 1985, but the Health Secretary last year called for further schemes after consultation, saying most people were in favour.
The decision by South Central Strategic Health Authority to back fluoridation is the first under 2003 laws giving health authorities powers to demand the service from water companies.
It gives the go-ahead to Southampton City Primary Care Trust to ask Southern Water to act, probably by 2010.
But a three-month consultation on the plans found 72 per cent of 10,000 local people were opposed.
Hampshire County Council was also against concentration of the compound being increased from 0.08 parts to one part per million.
Bob Deans, chief executive for Southampton City PCT, said: ‘A water fluoridation scheme, when introduced with continued oral health promotion, will be the most effective way of reducing the large numbers of tooth fillings and extractions currently needed by children in Southampton.’
Dr Andrew Mortimore, Public Health Director, said the safety and effectiveness of fluoridation ‘has been confirmed by a large number of respected health organisations’.
In the West Midlands water has contained added fluoride since 1964 and rates of tooth decay, especially in children, are lower.
Campaigners, however, believe fluoride could be a risk to general health.
John Spottiswoode, chairman of Hampshire Against Fluoridation, said the decision was ‘deeply unethical’.
But Professor Damien Walmsley, scientific adviser to the British Dental Association, said he looked forward to ‘fewer children in Southampton having to endure the pain and discomfort of decayed teeth or the trauma of having a tooth extracted as a result of adopting this initiative’.