The Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit is calling on the province to force Ontario municipalities into fluoridating community water supplies.
That request, sent in a letter to the health ministry this week, arrives as a number of communities in the region eliminate fluoride from drinking water.
“We have had our challenges in maintaining the very limited amount of fluoridation that we have,” said Dr. Charles Gardner, medical officer of health. “Only seven per cent of our population receives fluoridated water. In the past few months, we lost a substantial number of the communities that had continued it.”
The health unit has no business pursuing the issue provincially, says Coun. Andrew Hill.
“It’s about freedom of choice,” said Hill, who opposed putting fluoride in Orillia’s water. “I use fluoride rinse, but I don’t put it in my water.”
Orillia council voted against a health unit request to fluoridate the local water supply.
The decision followed a heated debate within the community over the ethics and health effects of adding the chemical to a public water supply.
With opposition to the practice emerging in communities here and across Ontario, the health unit is now urging the province to mandate its use.
“Our perspective is that this is a beneficial public health intervention and that it has been taken up to the state level in a number of countries around the world and that has resulted in … a higher percentage of the population that is receiving community water fluoridation,” Gardner said.
Upper-level governments are “better equipped to deal with the complexity, the technical aspects of it,” and are better able to “handle the politics of it as well,” he said.
“There is a lot of concerted opposition from a minority of the population that can be very discouraging to a municipal council to deal with,” he added. “The fact is, the majority of people … on survey support community water fluoridation.”
Robert J. Fleming, president of Canadians Opposed to Fluoridation, predicted the request would fall flat at Queen’s Park.
“It’s not the first time a public health unit will ask the province to mandate fluoridation for all Ontario citizens,” he said. “With great wisdom, the province has already indicated it won’t force fluoridation. After all, medicating local inhabitants through the public drinking water for the purpose of treating dental caries disease has already been struck down in a 1957 Supreme Court of Canada ruling. I’m confident the province doesn’t wish to go there.”
Tottenham – the lone community in Simcoe County to use fluoride – recently decided to eliminate it from the water supply.
Voters there will have a final say on the issue during a plebiscite in the next municipal election.
Meanwhile, two communities in the District of Muskoka – Huntsville and Lake of Bays – are discontinuing its use.
Gardner maintains that fluoride “is an effective, safe and very cost effective way of reducing dental decay, reducing cavities,” particularly among low-income families.
“Water fluoridation has more to do with saving face than saving cavities,” he said. “Let’s be clear ¬¬– fluoridation results in less than one cavity reduction per person per lifetime, pitted against the individual’s right to choose and the known health risks from fluoridation.”
Larger, urban municipalities like Toronto, Hamilton and London have retained fluoride use.
“There is quite a list of places that reviewed it and decided to keep it,” Gardner added.
Given the divisive and politically charged environment surrounding fluoridation, Gardner acknowledged the request is unlikely to bear fruit any time soon.
“I think it would be a very challenging issue, even for the province to touch,” he said.
Rather, the request is about “planting the seed and putting the spotlight on the importance of the issue and the importance of safeguarding fluoridation,” he said.
Coun. Linda Murray, council’s representative on the health unit, supports fluoridation and said the health ministry should be the one to decide.
“The province needs to step up, as they did with non-smoking,” she said.
Orillia council decided against fluoridation, despite a staff recommendation supporting the measure, she said.
“Instead of doing it municipality by municipality, and going through this one battle at a time in a very uncomfortable way, the province needs to make a decision as to something this is they are going to determine,” Murray said.
A health ministry spokesperson said the province had yet to receive the health unit’s letter.