RMWB = Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo
When Tod Beaulne treats children at his dental office in downtown Fort McMurray, the teeth are pretty good indicators of where they were born.
After the municipality removed fluoride from the water system in 2007, Beaulne – who is a dentist at Graystone Dental – said he has seen higher tooth decay rates in his younger patients, including his own children.
“For those who grew up in Fort McMurray over 20 to 30 years ago, I’ve seen that many of them in their adulthood have no cavities at all, or very few,” he said. “We see now a higher tooth decay rate, especially among children nowadays. I saw it in my own family, actually. My children that were born here compared to my children that were born in Edmonton.”
Beaulne acknowledges other health and lifestyle factors contribute to cavities and oral health, but is confident there is a strong correlation between what he sees with his patients and the removal of fluoride twelve years ago. However, the municipality has made no plans to resume fluoridation.
Unlike other communities, Wood Buffalo did not remove fluoride after a lengthy council debate. According to Travis Kendel, the municipality’s senior manager of environmental services, the chemical was first removed from the water system because of a province-wide shortage.
By 2014, the municipality’s water treatment plant began getting upgrades and the fluoride supply had increased. But with no guarantee of a long-term supply, Kendel said the fluoride equipment wasn’t upgraded.
“At that time it didn’t make sense to purchase it if we weren’t going to be able to add it,” he said.
A 2012 survey of 600 people also influenced the municipality’s decision not to resume fluoridation. That study found most people wanted to make their own decisions about fluoride use, and “specifically supported not adding it,” said Kendel.
While fluoridation is not part of council’s current goals, Kendel said another survey is possible.
“I know community values change over time,” he said. “We’re definitely mindful to the evolving landscape around the fluoride debate in Canada and North America.”
However, Beaulne’s observations have also been made in other communities that removed fluoride. In those communities, local leaders are either reconsidering their past decision or switched back to fluoride.
In 2016, a University of Calgary study found children in the city, which stopped fluoridation in 2011, had worse teeth compared to children in Edmonton, which continues the practice. Specifically, the study found tooth surfaces with decay increased by 3.8 surfaces per child in Calgary compared to 2.1 in Edmonton. The average child has four to five surfaces per tooth.
Last month, Calgary’s council approved studying the effects fluoridation removal has had in the city.
This past December, the city council in Windsor, Ont. voted 8-3 to resume fluoridation after stopping the practice in 2013. The decision was made after a 51 per cent increase in serious tooth decay was reported in children over a five-year period.
For now, Wood Buffalo’s residents will join the 57.57 per cent of Albertans and 61.3 per cent of Canadians without fluoridated water systems, according to a 2017 federal report.
“I think it’s a lack of education on the safety of it and the benefits of it,” said Beaulne. “It’s been proven through many, many studies over the years that it strengthens the enamel of the teeth and helps prevent tooth decay,”
He would like to see the municipality take another look at the options and Kendel said the municipality would be open to another survey in the future.
Kendel said the municipality often looks at the provincial and federal governments for limits and guidelines when it comes to health related topics.
While the province recognizes there are benefits to a fluoridated water system, Kendel said there is no minimum amount enforced.
For those wanting the benefits of fluoride, Kendel said there are many other ways to get it, including toothpaste, mouthwash and pills or tablets to add to your water.
The Athabasca River also has between .1 and .3 parts per million of naturally occurring fluoride.
“It comes back to those survey results,” he said. “Even though we did have people recognize the benefits of fluoride, we heard a resounding yes to having people choose to have fluoride or not.”