It was the fall of 1989. Madonna’s Like a Prayer blasted on radios, stores were filled with acid-wash jeans and moviegoers awaited the release of Michael J. Fox’s Back to the Future II.
And once again, Calgarians were talking fluoride.
Newspaper articles described the virtues of adding fluoride to water to prevent tooth decay since the ’40s.
But in plebiscites in 1957, 1961, 1966 and 1971 Calgarians continued to say no.
Desperate to avoid a no vote in a fifth plebiscite, Calgary Health Services launched a $50,000 public information campaign in 1989.
It set up one of the most divisive public health fights this city has ever seen.
A fluoride feud that continues to this day, its latest incarnation coming with a city council motion to halt fluoride in water to be presented Monday.
“We cringe each time it comes up and say here we go again,” acknowledged Dr. Richard Musto, medical officer of health for Calgary.
“But that’s the beauty of being in a democracy.”
Leading up to Calgary’s 1989 fluoride plebiscite, health officials manned booths at local malls.
Pamphlets with coloured sketches of children at a water fountain said “tooth decay need not be an inevitable part of life!”
And Calgary Health Services worked with high school science teachers to have students study the effects of fluoridated water on egg shells compared to egg shells exposed to acidic substances like soft drinks.
“When we looked at why votes in Calgary had not been successful compared to other places . . . there was a feeling we had not been as effective at providing people with the information they needed,” said Dr. Brent Friesen, a medical officer of health who participated in the 1989 campaign.
Elke Babiuk, a stay-at-home mom at the time, hadn’t paid much attention to Calgary’s 1989 fluoride plebiscite.
She wasn’t comfortable putting medication in her water, and assumed most others agreed.
When the ballots were counted in October of 1989, Babiuk was shocked that 114,190 people supported fluoridation — 12,470 more than opposed it.
“I was absolutely incensed they could take away my right not to be medicated,” Babiuk said last week, 21 years later.
About a year after the vote that ushered in Calgary’s fluoride program, Babiuk noticed her son’s teeth were coming in with chalky and blotchy stains.
Her sons had dental fluorosis, a condition caused by exposure to too much fluoride when teeth are developing.
The experience would convert Babiuk from casual observer to leader of the local charge against fluoride.
“I sat there and thought, ‘No. . . . It’s absolutely unethical. It should end,’ ” she said.
Calgary health officials revelled in their 1989 fluoride victory.
Friesen hoped for an end to treating young children
in poor communities with mouths filled with cavities. He’d seen little ones go under general anesthetics to have dental repairs and toddlers who needed
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“There was jubilation. A feeling that yes, we were
finally going to catch up to Edmonton after 25 years and be able to provide a similar health benefit,” Friesen said.
But in the two years it took the city to install equipment necessary to begin putting fluoride in tap water, opponents weren’t silent.
Babiuk established an Alberta chapter of the Health Action Network Society.
She began a door-knocking campaign and, in October of 1991, Babiuk presented two petitions to city hall with 80,000 names calling for a plebiscite.
The petitions were rejected on a technicality, but reignited the debate at council nonetheless.
A court challenge followed, but the courts upheld council’s power to add fluoride to the water.
Ald. Ray Jones was a newcomer to council in 1993, two full years after the city’s fluoride program had begun.
He remembers when his three children were young in the ’80s having put pink fluoride tablets in water and having them rinse with it when brushing their teeth.
It seemed beneficial.
In the mid-’90s his ailing father was told by doctors not to drink city water.
“It became a personal thing for me,” Jones recalled. “If my dad is one person who couldn’t take it, there’s got to be others out there.”
Jones wasn’t the only member of council having second thoughts about fluoride. In April, 1998, city council voted 8-7 to open a sixth plebiscite on the issue.
Jones remembers the gruelling public meetings leading to that decision.
Some advocates, like Babiuk, were militant in their opposition. Others, like medical health officer Musto, continued to proclaim fluoride a serious benefit to public health.
And others told council it didn’t matter either way.
“It was really tough for us because it makes it confusing,” said Jones. “It depended on which scientists we listened to, or which dentists. And that is scary.”
With Calgarians to pass judgment on fluoride again in 1998, the Calgary Regional Health Authority launched a $250,000 ad campaign supporting it.
Ads said fluoride is naturally occurring.
“For more than 50 years this simple, inexpensive measure has proven safe and successful in communities around the world,” posters proclaimed.
Babiuk and the no campaign raised $25,000 and said Calgarians’ pro-fluoride votes were being bought with their own money.
Both sides turned to the Internet. But the proliferation of fluoride information online — much of it misleading — would make the issue even more murky.
On Oct. 19, 1998, 54 per cent of voters said fluoride should stay.
The merits and concerns of fluoride surfaced in city hall every few years. But the 1998 public vote was the last plebiscite on fluoridation in this city.
On Monday, Ald. Druh Farrell will present a motion calling for a repeal of the existing fluoridation bylaw.
She cites other sources of fluoride in toothpaste, mouth rinses and supplements as replacements for adding it to the water.
Decisions from the American Dental Association, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Ontario Ministry of Health that fluoridated water should not be given to infants add to her case.
Farrell says the problem with fluoride is treating all the population the same.
“What we’re talking about is choice,” she said.
“We’re creating the opportunity for choice, so then it’s up to the individual.”
But there’s another pressing need to revisit public fluoride programs — money.
Equipment installed in Calgary’s two water treatment plants in 1991 must be replaced at a cost of up to $6 million.
The city planned to begin the work in 2012.
Even before Monday’s debate, some council members are musing about the possibility of another plebiscite — the city’s seventh fluoride vote in 54 years.
It’s enough to make both sides of the fluoride fight run for cover.
“We believe there haven’t been enough changes in evidence to warrant the effort it may end up taking,” said Musto, who’s preparing to defend fluoride once again.
Babiuk is spending the weekend debating whether to return to the fight herself.
“I got so burned out the last time around I had to take a step back,” admits Babiuk, now a city realtor.
“It was the same old, same old all the time. I decided, instead of spending my personal money fighting fluoride, I could get a career.”
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