WHEN it comes to a sparkling smile, the statistics show Southampton has nothing to be happy about.
Dental decay is rife and health bosses claim oral health campaigns have failed to improve the picture.
Consequently, we could all be drinking fluoridated water by the end of the year.
The controversial idea of adding more fluoride to our drinking water to help prevent tooth decay has been debated since the mid 1990s.
But a recent push by the local health care trust and yesterday’s call from Health Secretary Alan Johnson for fluoride to be added to water supplies across the country means fluoride levels in our tap water could soon be boosted.
Mr Johnson wants strategic health authorities to use their powers to compel water companies to add the chemical.
He 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.”
Just three weeks ago the Daily Echo revealed how Southampton girls as young as 11 were having their rotten and decayed front teeth removed and having false ones fitted.
Meanwhile a report compiled by Southampton City Primary Care Trust and Southampton City Council highlighted the dreadful state of children’s teeth in the city where five-year-olds have more missing or filled teeth than the average for England.
The South Central Strategic Health Authority (SHA) is currently investigating the feasibility of fluoridation in Hampshire and, subject to a public c o n s u l t a t i o n , could order it to go ahead before the end of 2008.
This has angered critics who argue there is evidence that fluoride can lead to serious health problems such as bone cancer and mental illness.
John Spottiswoode, a member of Hampshire Against Fluoridation, the National Pure Water Association and the South-West Hampshire Green Party, said: “The benefits of water fluoridation are very debatable and there is evidence of some nasty side effects.
“It is a violation of our human rights to push a very nasty chemical into our bodies without choice via the water supply, even if it is believed to be medicinal.”
Mr Spottiswoode claimed the only way to improve dental health is to spend more money on educating people on the importance of brushing their teeth and visiting a dentist.
He said: “In the short term, fluoridated water might show slight benefits but that is only because it has an effect on the tooth’s surface. It is of no help when it goes into the body – it is a highly reactive chemical and can lead to bone problems and mental problems.
“Dental fluorosis is a symptom of the systematic poisoning of the body by fluoride. However there are many more worrying recent studies pointing to several health problems in the body.
“These range from skeletal fluorosis causing brittle bones to bone cancer, thyroid problems, brain damage and hypersensitive reactions.”
But dental experts and Southampton City Primary Care Trust (PCT) would welcome fluoridated water.
The PCT has agreed to support fluoridation and has asked South Central SHA to investigate if it could be done.
The SHA is carrying out a study into the practicalities and cost of fluoridation and a public consultation will take place if the results are positive.
A spokesman for the SHA said: “We are currently reviewing the technical aspects of fluoridation and will be speaking to a range of health and patient stakeholder groups. We will then take a decision whether to go to a 12-week public consultation in the summer.
“It would then take no more than a couple of months for fluoride levels in the water supply to be adjusted.”
The PCT believes fluoridation is the only way to improve local dental health and says previous NHS campaigns, costing hundreds of thousands of pounds, have failed to help improve the situation.
A PCT spokesman said: “Child dental health in Southampton is poor. A shocking 42 per cent of children in the city who have experienced dental decay have an average of more than four decayed, missing or filled teeth.
“Water fluoridation is the single most effective public health measure for preventing tooth decay and improving oral health over a lifetime.
“The west midlands and the north-east have had fluoridation schemes for many years with enormous benefits to the oral health of the population. The schemes are monitored very closely and there have been no negative effects reported.”
A spokesman for the British Dental Association said children as young as five are having teeth removed under general anaesthetic because of decay.
He added: “Water fluoridation is a positive step in narrowing the health inequalities that currently exist.”
Dental charity the British Dental Health Foundation is also backing the calls for fluoridation.
Chief executive Nigel Carter, who used to practice on the border of fluoridated and non-fluoridated areas, said: “I have seen first hand the positive impact water fluoridation can have on dental health.
“It still amazes me that it was possible to tell from which side of the dividing main road a child came from simply by the state of their teeth, but the difference was massive.”
Click the links below for a range of reports into the risk and benefits of water fluoridation:
• The dental benefits of Water fluoridation
[British Fluoridation Society – undated]
• An independent report into the risks of fluoridation
•Study of factors affecting dental health statistics
[The Other Side of the Coin: An appraisal of the factors influencing dental health statistics. 6th Edition – 21st May 2006 by CJ Holdcroft]
• Preventative Dental Treatments and Dental Health Expenditure in Wolverhampton 1997 – 2002
[Link not operative]
• A summary of a York University study into water fluoridation
• Leaflet from National Fluoridation Information Centre (part 1)
[Link not operative]
• Leaflet from National Fluoridation Information Centre (part 2)
[Link not operative]