There’s one way Tod Beaulne can tell how long a child has lived in Fort McMurray: look at their teeth.
After forty years, the municipality stopped fluoridating Fort McMurray’s water supply during a province-wide shortage in 2007. Since then, Beaulne says he sees the consequences regularly as a dentist at Graystone Dental.
“I notice young people growing up in Fort McMurray have a high decay rate. But the older patients who lived here for decades, back when fluoride was in the water when their teeth were forming, don’t,” he says.
A University of Calgary study released earlier this month found children in Calgary, which stopped fluoridation in 2013, had worse teeth than those in Edmonton, which continues the practice. [Note from FAN: this is incorrect, see Calgary Fluoride Study Fatally Flawed; Key Data Omitted.]
But roughly nine years after Wood Buffalo stopped the practice, Travis Kendall, the municipality’s manager of sustainable operations, says there are no plans to reintroduce the practice, even though the municipality does not dispute the science or health impacts behind fluoridation.
“Suppliers have not been able to guarantee long-term supplies of fluoride for us,” Kendall said during a Friday interview. “That leads to a hurdle of consistency. When it comes to water treatment, frequently adding or removing chemicals based on how available they are may compromise consistency and quality.”
But even if a steady supply could be secured, Kendall says the municipality is hesitant to resurrect the practice.
In a 2012 survey of 600 residents, Kendall says residents felt they should be able to make their own health decisions. He also said there were concerns it was “mass medication” and would violate personal and religious liberties.
“We want to respect the public opinion and expectation and, in that 2012 survey, the public told us we shouldn’t be forcing fluoride on anybody,” he said. “It’s impossible to opt out of fluoride unless you stop drinking tap water. For that reason, and the logistical side, we haven’t added fluoride back.”
Yet that same study found 57 per cent of respondents already believed the water supply was fluoridated, while 58 per cent felt it should be. Nearly two-thirds agreed fluoridation decreased costs to public health.
When the survey was presented to council in March 2012, several Canadian cities were debating, or had already, stopped fluoridation.
In recent years, increased pressure to avoid chemical additives and fears about potential health risks caused the municipal council’s of nearly 30 different communities – including Okotoks, Athabasca and Moncton – to put a stop to the process.
Each time, public health experts insisted fluoridated drinking water was safe and was one of the most cost-effective public health policies in recent times.
Yet while Wood Buffalo’s survey found 68 per cent agreed other water-related issues were more important, it concluded “the majority of residents support fluoridation of the water supply and believe that it delivers oral health benefits.”
Kendall also points out the Athabasca River already has naturally occurring fluoride, mainly between .1 and .3 parts per million, and that mouthwash and toothpaste can have 5,000 times that amount.
But Beaulne says that amount is well below the minimum rate suggested by Health Canada, which is .5 parts per million.
“For adults, fluoridation is not going to make much of an impact because the teeth are already formed. But more than anything, it helps children when they’re forming their teeth,” he says. “I know there’s a lot of conspiracy theories out there, but those are like the arguments from people who don’t like vaccines. I guess that’s what happens without an understanding of science.”