The debate over adding fluoride to Sunderland’s drinking water has been reignited after Health Secretary Alan Johnson said it could help fight tooth decay among children.
Mr Johnson wants a national discussion on whether to put fluoride into water supplies, saying it could give a “dental health boost that could last a lifetime”.
Fluoride is added to water in some areas of the North East, including Newcastle and Gateshead, but not Wearside.
Tooth decay among Sunderland children is higher than average and dental experts say fluoridating the city’s drinking water could help.
But some oppose the move, including Sunderland North MP Bill Etherington, who has described fluoride as a “poison”.
Mr Johnson said: “I want the NHS to do much more to prevent rather than just treat disease.
“Fluoridation is an effective and relatively easy way to help address health inequalities, giving children from poorer backgrounds a dental health boost that can last a lifetime.”
In Sunderland, five-year-olds have an average of 2.39 decayed, missing or filled teeth, compared to a national average of 1.47 and a North East average of 1.97.
Nonnie Crawford, director of public health at Sunderland Teaching Primary Care Trust, said: “We will be working closely with the local strategic health authority on any matters regarding the possible fluoridation of local water supplies.
“We are awaiting further information from the Department of Health, but before any decisions are taken there would need to be full local consultation with the public on this issue.”
She added: “Wherever it is used, fluoridated water is associated with lower rates of dental decay and is something which we need to consider if we are to provide an effective means of preventing existing problems.”
But Mr Etherington said: “I think in many ways it’s a cop out.
“If the Government thinks it’s good why don’t they allow people who want fluoride to have it – in tablet form, toothpaste or mouthwash – and leave the water alone?
“The main issue is one of civil liberties – there’s no reason why anyone should be forced to ingest it.
“If people want to poison themselves that’s fine, but I don’t, and I don’t want to wish it on anyone else.”
Six million people in England – including just under half of the North East – receive water containing fluoride.
Alistair Baker, Northumbrian Water’s communications and PR manager, said: “Northumbrian Water doesn’t fluoridate the Sunderland water supply.
“The decision on whether to fluoridate water is now wholly a matter for the strategic health authority and, before they make that decision, it must first consult and fully take into account the views of the
A spokeswoman for the North East Strategic Health Authority said: “There is variation in fluoridation across the region due to natural and artificial fluoride already in water supplies.
“Where there is fluoridation, significant benefits to oral health can be seen – a study looking at the oral health of all five-year-olds in County Durham in 1999-2000 found that in non-fluoridated areas, 60 per cent of children had experienced dental disease, while in fluoridated areas this figure dropped to 37 per cent.
“The strategic health authority welcomes measures to improve oral health. However, any changes in the region would only be as a result of extensive consultation with the public, and we would work closely with primary care trusts and other organisations to implement any changes.
“There are no immediate plans or current consultations around fluoridation.”