Do you remember 1957?
John Diefenbaker swept to power that year. The Cold War was about to get colder, with the Russians successfully launching Sputnik into Earth’s orbit. I Love Lucy ruled the nascent TV sit-com universe.
It was during this time that Calgary first dove into a debate over adding fluoride to the water supply. After multiple plebiscites coinciding with years of wrangling, the chemical was finally added in 1989.
Now, at least five of our aldermen want Calgarians to get moving and push back against the machine, getting rid of the fluoride added to our water.
So brace yourself. As the economy sputters and governments everywhere are spending time counting pennies and helping people get through the tough times, Calgary could get sucked into a debate that’s best left to world organizations and Canada’s best scientists for now.
The fuss is over whether the chemical is safe for human consumption.
The answer is not nearly as clear-cut as you’d like.
Fluoride detractors argue it’s a chemical whose effects are detrimental to our health at worst and inconclusive at best.
One group advocating this position is Canton, N.Y.,-based Fluoride Action Network. It boasts a large number of health professionals who support their anti-fluoride position.
The indirect health effects of fluoride, they argue, have not been studied throughly enough.
They point to the negative effect of ingesting fluoride on the kidney, bones and teeth.
Then there’s the question of risk of swallowing fluoride versus simply rinsing with it.
Fluoride promoters argue it poses a minimal risk because we are exposed to so little of it.
Dental associations across the world tout the benefits of fluoride use in the prevention of cavities.
Many places have been treating their water with fluoride for a long time and most people seem to get along just fine.
Even if humans didn’t add fluoride to water, it is already present, usually in very small concentrations.
But fluoride supporters also warn against over-exposure to the chemical.
Dental experts in the U.S. say we should avoid using fluoridated toothpaste to clean very young children’s teeth because they could swallow the toothpaste.
New parents have also been warned against using fluoridated tap water to mix infant formula.
The World Health Organization reports exposure to high levels of naturally occurring fluoride in some cooking fuels (coal and anthracite) causes adults in some parts of the world to suffer from dental fluorosis, a condition where fluoride actually damages teeth.
Then there’s a long list of places where fluoride is not added to the water supply. Vancouver and Montreal have resisted the addition of fluoride for decades, as have huge swaths of Western Europe. There’s no evidence people’s dental health is worse in those places.
So, who to believe?
The nature and scope of the fluoride debate is so wide and its effects so significant, it should not be left for individual cities and towns.
No health issues should be dealt with in this piecemeal manner. (You would not expect the standard for E.coli and salmonella contamination to be lower in one place and higher in another.)
Besides, it is wrong for aldermen to exploit a budget issue — the need to upgrade our water treatment equipment — and turn it into a health issue.
The discussion on the safely and effectiveness of fluoride should be happening at a national and global level. It’s not like there’s a shortage of other things for our city politicians to do.