Politicians and water supply specialists have joined anti-fluoride activists in the call for a rethink on advanced plans to fluoridate our water.
This emerged yesterday at a meeting of the parliamentary portfolio committee on water affairs and forestry, which held the investigative session after recent reports of fluoride poisoning in Ireland, following a system failure there.
The question in focus was: in the South African context, would the fluoridation of water be a cure-all or a dangerous waste?
There were claims that fluoridated water could be likened to “mass medication”, that it was toxic and that it would not reach the people who needed it most.
Those attending the committee hearing said they wanted to see sound local research, rather than relying on data from First World countries such as the United States, where conditions were not comparable to those in South Africa, before fluoridation was finally implemented.
The Health Department’s director of oral health, Johan Smit, told the meeting that the plan to fluoridate South Africa’s water, with a view to improving oral health and consequently overall health, had originated from former health minister Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.
A national fluoridation committee had drafted regulations.
In terms of these, every water provider became responsible for the fluoridation of water supplies, or had to ask for an exemption, especially where levels of natural fluoride in the water were at optimal levels, or higher.
Among points against fluoridation aired at the meeting were:
An overdose of fluoride is highly toxic, and in South African conditions it may not be possible to ensure safety levels are adhered to.
More than 7 million South Africans have no access to tap water, which means the people who need fluoride may not in fact benefit.
No comprehensive local studies have been done to ascertain whether fluoride can be added to other substances, such as mealie meal, as a more effective way of reaching the population worst affected by tooth decay.
Smit told the committee that tooth decay affected 70% of six-year-olds in South Africa, the figure rising to 90% among adults.
Fluoride ingested during teeth development helped teeth fight off acid attacks.
Fluoride at the optimal level – one part per million – would reduce decay by up to 60%, result in less toothache and so less time off school and work, and fewer and smaller dental bills.
Water fluoridation, at R1 to R2 a person per year, was 18 times cheaper than toothpaste and 61 times cheaper than filling a tooth.
Fluoridation had also been proved entirely safe at the optimal dose.
But Richard Weeden, of the African Health and Development Organisation, said the benefits had not been weighed up adequately against the risks.
Fluoride added to water, unlike that occurring naturally in water, was a highly toxic substance in overdose, “a bit more toxic than lead but not quite as toxic as arsenic”.
Hamanth Kasan, general manager of water treatment technology at Rand Water, and chairman of the Water Research Commission, said: “The way forward should be to investigate what is in the best interests of South Africans in respect of fluoride.”