Water companies will be forced to add fluoride to Britain’s drinking supplies under moves by MPs to prevent tooth decay in children.
By the age of five, nearly two-thirds of children in some parts of the UK have at least one rotten tooth.
There is overwhelming evidence that fluoridation, supported by dentists, can dramatically reduce the spread of tooth decay.
However, critics argue that it should be up to parents to cut sweets out of their children’s diets and supervise teeth-brushing, rather than forcing the nation to drink chemically spiked water which may carry health risks.
Tomorrow MPs will push to amend an unrelated water Bill, currently due before Parliament, to make fluoridation compulsory where local people vote for it.
The Scottish Executive is already consulting on plans to fluoridate water, while in England Public Health Minister Hazel Blears has asked the chief medical officer and chief dental officer for advice on whether the evidence would support wider fluoridation.
‘Fluoride has been shown to be one of the simplest, most effective public health interventions there is. All we are calling for is a right for local people to decide,’ said Andy Burnham, MP for Leigh and a member of the Commons health select committee.
‘We are talking about concentrations of one part per million in water, a tiny amount, which can have a huge health benefit.’
However, anti-fluoride campaigners said the issue was the beginning of a ‘slippery slope’ of mass medication. Opponents believe fluoride could be linked to greater risk of cancer or bone disease, while too much could turn teeth brown and mottled.
‘No one has the right to compel another person to take medication against their will,’ said Jane Jones, campaign director of the National Pure Water Association.
‘This [tooth decay] is a non-contagious, non life-threatening, avoidable condition. Why aren’t there warning labels on sweets and fizzy drinks instead?
‘If we mass-medicate or treat populations like this some other bright spark is going to say “why don’t we put this in the water next because it would prevent something else?”‘
Andy Burnham, a former aide to ex-Public Health Minister Tessa Jowell, is backed by the former Health Secretary Frank Dobson and Liberal Democrat health spokeswoman Patsy Calton. He has tabled a Commons motion calling on the Government ‘to give communities the power to choose water fluoridation’ by allowing amendment of the Bill, which will be published tomorrow.
The water industry has powers to consider fluoridation if there is local support. In practice most have been reluctant, fearing legal bills if any health side-effects are found in future.
Burnham’s amendment would force water companies to fluoridate supplies where a clear majority of local people wants it, effectively removing the responsibility for the change from the water industry.
There are strong links between child poverty and bad teeth in Britain, partly because of diet. Yet fluoridation appears able to iron out the differences: in Greater Manchester, more than 62 per cent of five-year-olds have at least one decayed tooth, twice the rate of tooth decay in Birmingham where water is fluoridated.
Senior figures at the Department of Health are said to be privately sympathetic on the issue but have been wary of a backlash.
A spokesman said Ministers believed extending the number of water fluoridation schemes ‘would reduce oral health inequalities’ but that the Medical Research Council, which recently concluded there was no evidence of side effects, was still carrying out research on how the body absorbed fluoride.