Fluoride is still being added to water supplies in the State, despite 11 local authorities voting against its use amid continuing public concern about its effects on human health and the environment. Last week, the Minister for Health, Mr Martin, strongly defended the practice, in response to a Dail question from the Green Party Leader, Trevor Sargent.

Mr Martin said the newly established forum to review fluoridation of public piped water supplies in Ireland found the practice should continue as a public health measure.

“The best available and most reliable scientific evidence indicates that at the maximum permitted level of fluoride in drinking water at one part per million, human health is not adversely affected,” he said.

He said water fluoridation had been very effective in improving the oral health of the Irish population, especially of children, but he acknowledged that dental fluorosis (a form of discoloration of the tooth enamel) was an indicator of overall fluoride absorption whether from natural sources, fluoridated water or from inappropriate use of fluoride toothpaste at a young age.

The safety of water fluoridation has been in question for many years with fears that accumulated fluoride may be linked to osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s disease and bone cancer. In addition, very low levels have been linked to skin irritations, mouth ulcers, headaches and irritable bowel syndrome.

More recent concerns have centred on fluoride/aluminium combinations which some scientists claim is even more toxic. The American Dental Association (ADA), however, has continuously endorsed fluoridation of community water supplies and the use of fluoride-containing products saying they are “safe and effective measures for preventing tooth decay”.

One of the main opponents of fluoridation, the Irish environmental organisation, Voice, has consistently called for the repeal of the 1960 Water Fluoridation Act, claiming the Republic is the only democracy with compulsory state-wide fluoridation, and which has a stated government policy of extending the national fluoridation programme.

The organisation noted that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had questioned its safety, claiming it did not fully understand what happened to the fluoride chemical when it was added to water. Voice also pointed out that a number of European countries ceased fluoridation in the 1970s such as Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland.

Mr Sargent asked in the Dail when the Minister intended to act on the recommendations contained in the Fluoridation Forum’s report, and if Mr Martin intended to appoint as part of the review body individuals who have anti-fluoridation views.

Mr Martin said the expert body recommended by the forum had its inaugural meeting in April under the chairmanship of the Department of Health’s former chief dental officer, Seamus O’Hickey.

He said it had “broad representation, including from the areas of public health medicine, engineering, management, environmental protection, environmental health, dentistry and health promotion and a strong consumer input in terms of members of the public and representations of consumer interest”.

The secretariat of the body is the Irish Dental Health Foundation, an independent charitable trust – the Government’s mandatory policy of adding fluoride to water supplies is provided under the Health (Fluoridation of Water Supplies) Act, 1960.

Action groups in Dublin and Donegal first brought the issue to public attention in the late 90s. They campaigned for an end to the practice, leading to the then Dublin Corporation and Donegal County Council passing all-party motions to cease fluoridation. Since then nine other authorities have followed suit – Sligo, Kerry, Kildare, Galway, Cork city, Meath, Leitrim, Longford and Clare. But fluoridation continues despite the local politicians’ stance in these authorities.

Many campaigners remain deeply concerned there has been no overall health research into the effects of fluoridation in Ireland in the past 40 years. Voice spokesman Robert Pocock rejected the findings of the forum report saying it failed to answer many important questions regarding the safety of the fluoridation practice. He said there was now an even greater concern about the presence of aluminium in water supplies in that its combination with fluoride presented a more dangerous toxin.