WE ALL want that ring of confidence, but at what price? Celebrities spend fortunes on straighter, whiter teeth. Now our Government wants to improve everyone’s molars by fluoridating the water supply. If public health officials think aesthetics are now as important as health, they may find that human rights lawyers disagree.
The drive to fluoridate Britain’s water sounds fairly harmless – fluoride occurs naturally in water – until you discover that there is no compelling reason to do it and there is increasing concern about possible risks. Europe has much lower rates of tooth decay than America despite only about 2 per cent of Europeans drinking fluoridated water compared with about 60 per cent of Americans. Finland, Cuba, Canada and eastern Germany have seen tooth decay continue to decline since abandoning the policy. Last May the Swiss city of Basle stopped fluoridation after 40 years, saying that there was no evidence that rates of tooth decay were lower there than in non-fluoridated cities. The British policy puts us alone in Europe, save for Ireland and one region of Spain.
Campaigners argue that silico-fluorides are a class 2 poison and claim that America uses an unpurified hazardous waste product in its water supply because pharmaceutical grade sodium fluoride is too expensive. Fluoride supposedly inhibits the functioning of enzymes which cause acid to build up on teeth. But there seems to be little certainty about what other enzymes it might inhibit. We know that fluoride accumulates in bones, making them more brittle and prone to fracture, and that it can displace iodine, which is crucial to the functioning of the thyroid.
Hypothyroidism (under-active thyroid) is a growing problem in the US. Fluoride also appears to damage the tooth enamel of between 30 and 50 per cent of children in fluoridated communities.
But ministers are determined to overcome the water companies’ resistance to fluoridation. In 1995 Yorkshire Water said that they would not fluoridate because their customers did not want it and because government indemnities to them were “insufficient” – thus appearing to acknowledge that mass medication could breach civil liberties. So the new Water Act gives health authorities the power to force water companies to fluoridate supplies after “local consultation”, although the nature of that consultation and the level of indemnity have yet to be fixed.
Why are we spending public money on a policy that has so little apparent public benefit? In 2000, scientists at York University carried out a major review of fluoridation and recommended studies to determine its possible effects on the thyroid gland and child intelligence. Two years later the Medical Research Council advised that these recommendations were unimportant and instead proposed research to determine the “public perception of aesthetically unacceptable dental fluorosis “. Staggeringly, the York review concluded that “little high-quality research has been undertaken in the area of fluoride and health”. The Government should surely have spent money to correct this before plunging into legislation that could bring with it a heavy bill if it is found to violate the individual’s right to refuse treatment for non-contagious diseases. The water companies will hope to blame the health authorities, but the first test case should be fascinating.
Camilla Cavendish is a Times leader writer