When Estevan voters go to the polls next Wednesday, not only will they fill the vacant seat on city council, they will also help decide whether fluoride will continue to be added to our drinking water.

In making the decision to seek the public’s opinion, the City cited inconvenience and employee safety issues while adding that although fluoridation itself is not expensive, the wear and tear on equipment does add up costs over time.

The subject of fluoridation is one that evokes strong feelings on both sides of the matter, and although the local debate has been tepid, there are still strong opinions for and against fluoridation.

Gerry Uswak, the Dean of the College of Dentistry at the University of Saskatchewan, is a strong proponent of fluoridation and shares that belief with many in the dental health field. He said both sides of the debate have many reasons for their stance, but he feels fluoridation remains the cheapest way of delivering the benefits of fluoride to the public at large.

“There is one line that sums it up for people in dental public health and it’s when they were looking at some of the top dental public health interventions of the last 50 years, water fluoridation is one of them,” he said.

“We do appreciate that communities say they are dealing with chemicals, there are pumps that have to be changed … there are costs but when you look at it pro-rated over a population, it’s a dollar or less depending on the jurisdiction, per person, per year, to impart that kind of a benefit.”

Along with the dental community, many other groups including the World Health Organization and Centres for Disease Control in the U.S. have also voiced their strong support for fluoridation.

Still, the subject remains a divisive one as communities throughout Canada, including some here in Saskatchewan have held votes on the matter over the last few years. In many of those plebiscites there was fierce debate from both sides.

Asked why the topic generates such strong emotions, Uswak opined that many on the no side feel that adding fluoride to water is a violation of their rights. “It is providing a protective benefit for an entire population which to some people tramples their individual rights,” he said. “(Others) say you are putting chemicals in my water and it is dangerous and it causes a litany of things.”

As Uswak notes, there are numerous groups, many of whom can be found on the hundreds of anti-fluoridation Internet sites, which claim fluoride causes a variety of health issues ranging from cancer to Down Syndrome.

Uswak said there have been many studies done to debunk those claims and feels many in the anti-fluoride camp have “cherry-picked” information from certain studies that back up their claims.

“Over the past few years Australia did a national systematic review when this came up for a national discussion. They looked at every paper and did a proper review where the ones that didn’t have any scientific validity or very strong scientific methods were excluded and when they got down to the core of solid papers, it said it has a protective benefit and it is safe at the levels that we are fluoridating at.”

Uswak said Health Canada has also done a scientific review and following their study made the suggestion that fluoride levels be decreased from 1 part per million to the current industry standard of 0.7 ppm.

In Saskatchewan, roughly 38 per cent of communities fluoridate their water. Of the two largest centres, Saskatoon does fluoridate while Regina does not.

Uswak said the decision of Regina voters to vote against fluoridation, while disappointing to those in the dental community, has provided a unique study opportunity since Saskatoon currently does fluoridate.

He noted that every five years a survey is done on school-aged children in Saskatchewan and kids in Regina have “significantly higher disease rates” than those in communities that fluoridate.

“There is local science that suggests that water fluoridation still has that benefit,” he said. “It’s a province-wide survey of kids in particular age groups and it’s a standardized, calibrated examination.”