Water fluoridation in Lethbridge is here to stay – for now, at least.
After a lengthy and at times passionate debate Monday, city council voted down by a 5-4 margin a resolution by Ald. Bridget Mearns to end fluoridation of city drinking water, a practice adopted in 1974 after an equally close plebiscite on the issue. Council debated the contentious matter for more than 90 minutes.
Mearns brought the issue forward, arguing there’s evidence that casts doubt on the ethics, safety and effectiveness of fluoridation in preventing tooth decay. Afterward, she appeared to take the loss in stride but said she expects the issue will eventually come up again.
“I don’t think that you can raise it too soon. We’re pretty tapped out. We’ve looked at all the research, and it came down to a 5-4 vote, and I have to respect the will of council. Do I think the issue is gone to bed for another 15 years? Absolutely not,” she said.
“What was important, I think, is that we had this debate,” she said.
Fellow aldermen Faron Ellis, Liz Iwaskiw and Joe Mauro supported Mearns’s resolution. They questioned the ethics of what they consider mass medicating the population by adding fluoride to drinking water. Mayor Rajko Dodic voted against the resolution along with aldermen Ryan Parker, Jeff Coffman, Jeff Carlson and Tom Wickersham, each citing their legal responsibility under the Municipal Government Act to protect the health of the public.
Afterward, Ellis said the issue exposed a clear division on council that’s likely to resurface when dealing with other issues.
“I think the lines are very clearly drawn. The incumbents sided with the status quo, the newly-elected aldermen . . . sided with choice. I see these divisions clearly on many issues, not just this issue, and I expect those lines of division will appear again, particularly on the budget, but on other issues,” he said. “Essentially, what it says is that last fall, at least, the change that the citizens brought to this council through their electoral choices has significantly tipped the balance in votes but it hasn’t ultimately changed the decisions,” he said.
It appears council is just as divided on the issue as city residents. A public survey early this year found nearly 49 per cent of Lethbridge residents in favour of continuing fluoridation while nearly 43 per cent wanted it to stop. About nine per cent were undecided.
During debate Monday, Dodic spoke at length, arguing the literature opposing fluoridation lacks the credibility of the scientific evidence in favour of fluoridation.
“In my view, the real research doesn’t support the position being taken by (anti-fluoridation lobbyists),” he said. “I’m satisfied that (fluoridation is) safe, it’s effective, and it was the right decision to make.”
City resident Neil Alho, a vocal opponent of fluoridation, was frustrated with council’s decision and suggested he may not be ready to let the issue rest.
“I think it’s going to take a little while to regroup,” he said. “We may take another option of going through plebiscite (and) leave it up to the population to make a decision on it.”
Mearns said she supported the position of some of her council colleagues that fluoridation should be a matter of provincial jurisdiction because it deals with public health. She said she would like to see the province re-introduce programs where health officials visit schools to teach children about proper oral hygiene.