Council will delay deciding on the future of fluoride in Calgary’s water system until a public hearing later this month, but one aldermen questions whether members’ minds are already made up and that a hearing would be largely ceremonial.
Ten of 15 aldermen had lent signatures to a motion Monday that would have ended Calgary’s 20 years of fluoridation without any formal public input.
But amid deluges of hundreds of e-mails and calls from across North America on the divisive issue last week, as well as criticism from the mayor, council decided a Jan. 26 hearing will let experts and residents hash out the debate that mixes health, science and ethics.
As they embraced the idea of a hearing, many aldermen expressed their determination to remove the additive from city water — a juxtaposition Ald. Gael MacLeod found upsetting.
“What is the point of . . . having a debate if no one is listening?” she asked in council.
“The purpose of having a public hearing is to become informed, and what I hear is a lot of council members saying they have the information they want,” MacLeod told the Herald later.
“I don’t hear much of anything that sounds like people are open to changing their minds or to getting more information.”
MacLeod said last week she’s unsure on her stance.
Ald. Jim Stevenson offered a rebuttal to MacLeod, but at the same time signalled he has never been swayed by the medical establishment’s steady support of fluoride in water to prevent tooth decay.
“I am open, but I’ll tell you that over the last 30 years, nothing has convinced me to change my mind,” he said.
Two members, Brian Pincott and John Mar, said council should have decided right away and didn’t need to seek public input.
Both strongly oppose fluoride treatment in Calgary’s water, and said the provincial authorities who advocate for it should pay for it.
Of the members who weren’t behind the anti-fluoride motion, only Ald. Gord Lowe voiced any sort of determined stance to maintain the city’s current water treatment.
The debate has lumbered through Calgary politics for five decades, with a string of plebiscites, including the 1989 vote that endorsed fluoridation, and a pitch made by Ald. Druh Farrell in 2009 that failed 7-6 in council.
Farrell delayed her renewed proposal Monday, arguing: “People want the opportunity to express their point of view.”
She said the two sides of the debate have stopped listening to each other, but she argued the anti-fluoride forces have become more persuasive and gathered more evidence in recent years.
While the ethical question over mass medication via the water supply has long been a pivotal concern by anti-fluoridation advocates, various medical studies over the years have argued fluoride can cause everything from weaker bones to lower intelligence in children.
Dr. Richard Musto of Alberta Health Services acknowledged such studies exist but noted that countries regularly review the information and always conclude that the low fluoride dosage in water is safe and beneficial.
“You have the appearance of disagreement, the appearance of debate, when in fact all of the major health and dental authorities in the world support it,” Musto said. “However, we’re all going to get our five minutes.”
Mayor Naheed Nenshi, who wasn’t among the 10 council members eager to ditch fluoridation, said he’ll be at a mayors’ gathering in Regina and miss this month’s fluoride hearing.
At least one alderman’s views have changed: Ald. Diane Colley-Urquhart supported keeping fluoride in the city’s water in 2009, but she now stands alongside Farrell against it and said Calgary doesn’t need it.
Although she said a public hearing is necessary on this hot-button issue, Colley-Urquhart offered a grim view of how it would unfold.
“It will probably be evenly divided, and everyone trashes the others’ science,” the alderman and registered nurse said.
There’s mixed view on a plebiscite, with many aldermen against bringing it to another citywide vote.