EDMONTON – Look ma, no fluoride!

The chemical that many municipalities add to water to prevent tooth decay is in such short supply that Edmonton could run out this fall if an expected shipment falls through.

“At this time we have sufficient fluoride to meet Edmonton’s needs until the fall,” said Mike Gibbs, spokesman for Epcor, which supplies water to the Edmonton region.

“But it is a situation that we’re closely monitoring and actually what’s happening is there’s a shortage in North America of fluoride.”

The company has its regular two-month supply in stock, enough to last to the end of September. It has ordered another shipment to last until December. But a reliable supply of fluoride is no longer a sure thing.

Municipalities in the U.S. and Canada are scrambling for fluoride, a byproduct of phosphate mining, which has soared in price and dwindled in availability in recent months.

In the United States, the shortage has been attributed to Hurricane Katrina damaging Gulf Coast manufacturing facilities two years ago, and to a downturn in the phosphate mining industry and the shutdowns of some American suppliers.

“We are monitoring it. We have enough for now but if we do run into a situation where we’re not able to add fluoride to drinking water because of the shortage, we’ll notify the public,” Gibbs said.

“We’ll have a better idea in the next month or two, whether we’ll be in a situation.”

U.S. cities as diverse as New Orleans, Portland, Maine and Greensboro, N.C. have reported shortages or temporarily suspended adding the compound to their water supplies.

Ottawa has also run short of fluoride for short periods this year and has seen prices for fluoride double to $566 per metric tonne this year from $285 per metric tonne in 2006.

Closer to home, Red Deer city officials told the Red Deer Advocate newspaper that the city’s water went without fluoride for a period two weeks ago. The city is anticipating an extended shortage because of spotty deliveries.

In Edmonton, Epcor adds 0.8 parts of fluoride per one million parts of water. The city has treated its water with fluoride since 1967, after Edmontonians voted to do so in a plebiscite a year earlier.

Gibbs said the utility is protected from price spikes because it signed long-term contracts.

One option in case of a long-term local fluoride shortage may be to slightly reduce the level put in water until supplies recover, Gibbs said.

Fluorides protect tooth enamel against acids that cause cavities. According to Health Canada, many studies show fluoridated water greatly reduces the number of cavities in children’s teeth. About 40 per cent of Canadians receive fluoridated water.

Kimberly Carriere, spokeswoman for the Alberta Dental Association, said going without fluoridated water for short periods isn’t likely to harm dental health.

“For long periods, you’d certainly see an increase in dental caries but you do have fluoride in your toothpaste so the impact wouldn’t be that large in the short term,” Carriere said.

Capital Health has been watching for a fluoride shortage since it received an alert from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month.

The health region also downplays the health impact of a temporary fluoride interruption.

“Since we have been using fluoride in the water for a long period of time, a temporary shortage – even for weeks – would not affect things too much,” said Nelson Fok, associate director of environmental public health.

“If (a shortage) does happen, we would work with the dental association and so on and ask the public, especially children, to make sure they brush their teeth with fluoridated toothpaste and floss their teeth. All those things will help.