Sweeping new measures to allow fluoride to be added to large parts of Britain’s water supply are set to provoke a huge political row amid fears that ‘mass medication’ may harm children and lead to more tooth disease.
Ministers will try to force the new Water Bill through the House of Commons this week before a crucial vote on the issue in nine days. The Government will argue that adding fluoride improves dental health, particularly among the young.
Health Ministers want to give strategic health authorities powers to order water companies to add fluoride to supplies. About five million people, mostly in the Midlands, already have fluoride artificially added under agreements going back decades.
But opponents of fluoridation argue that the new government rules would make it far easier for water companies to start adding the chemical. They say that up to half Labour backbench MPs and many Conservative MPs will vote against the Bill, putting the Government in danger of an embarrassing defeat.
‘It is mass medication, an additive in the water supply,’ said Brian Donohoe, the Labour MP for Cunninghame South in Ayrshire, who is leading the rebellion.
Bill Wiggin, the Conservative MP who sits in the Commons committee scrutinising the Bill, said the scientific community was split on whether adding fluoride to the water could have adverse health effects such as dental fluorosis (a discolouring of the teeth due to excess fluoride) or brittle bone disease. ‘We need proper scientific evidence before we proceed any further,’ he said.
One of the Government’s most senior advisers on science condemned the move as ‘crass stupidity’. Leading toxicologist Dr Vyvyan Howard, of Liverpool University, said: ‘We should be stopping the whole thing now rather than expanding the use of fluoride. It is totally unnecessary.
‘One dose for all is wrong. Toddlers and those that have weak kidneys are at greater risk.’ Howard is a member of the Government’s advisory committee on pesticides.
He said there were 10 parts per billion of fluoride in human breast milk, 100 times less than that proposed for drinking water.
‘The fact that we have evolved a system of production of breast milk – which is low in fluoride but high in chlorine – tells us that, probably, there is a reason for this and we need to look at that.’
Some members of the Muslim community have objected to the plans on cultural and religious grounds.
Donohoe will propose an amendment to the Bill which says that fluoride can be added to the water only if the local authority agrees. Donohoe’s move, which has cross-party support, could open the way for local referendums on the issue.
Campaigners believe that once they have forced local votes, the public will decide against adding the chemical which in its basic form is regulated as a Class II poison. In large doses it is lethal.
The Government will say that it is willing to give water companies unlimited liability cover in case they are sued by people worried about the health implications.
The cover will be open-ended and campaigners against fluoride say legal bills could run to millions of pounds. The Government is already likely to face a legal challenge to the overall policy if it is passed in the next fortnight.
‘If the Government does end up paying, how many millions of pounds will it cost?’ said Wiggin. ‘We have asked them that and they have not come up with a figure. It seems they have no idea.’
Melanie Johnson, the Public Health Minister, said that putting fluoride in the water, which is supported by the British Dental Association and the British Medical Association, would improve dental health for many of the poorest people in Britain.
‘Although there have been substantial improvements in dental health over the last 30 years, there continue to be areas where there are considerable numbers of children with the disease,’ she told The Observer.
‘These inequalities can be avoided. For example, five year olds in the West Midlands, where drinking water is fluoridated, had on average nearly three times fewer decayed or filled primary teeth than those in the North West, where it’s not fluoridated.’
Johnson said that strategic health authorities would have to be involved in ‘local consultations’ before going ahead with fluoridation schemes. But she said that she was against giving local authorities the power to decide.
‘This is a public health matter which we feel should be owned by the Health Service,’ she said. She denied that offering indemnity was an admission that water companies could be sued over health fears.
‘We want all water companies to operate on a level playing field,’ she said. ‘We don’t want a water supplier who agrees to fluoridate to incur any additional liabilities to one that does not have a fluoridation scheme.
‘We’re recognising the importance of indemnities to the water industry. It is not recognising any health danger from fluoride addition to water at the recommended concentration.’