Calgary city council voted against a motion Tuesday night to revisit whether fluoride should be added to the drinking water, then on Wednesday asked Mayor Naheed Nenshi to write to the provincial health authority asking it to explore the issue.

Couns. Peter Demong, Diane Colley-Urquhart and Richard Pootmans put forward Tuesday’s motion, suggesting the city invite experts from the University of Calgary’s O’Brien Institute for Public Health to offer advice on the matter.

Council rejected the idea by a vote of nine to five.

When the meeting resumed Wednesday, Coun. Druh Farrell put forward a motion directing Nenshi to write to Alberta Health Services, asking it to explore root causes of increased tooth decay in Alberta, including equitable access to dental care programs and services, especially for low-income families.

Nenshi was skeptical of what effect the letter will produce.

“This letter ain’t gonna amount to a hill of beans … but I’ll write it,” he told council.

A study published earlier this year by Lindsay McLaren, with the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine, found a greater increase in tooth decay among Calgary kids compared to Edmonton kids since Calgary stopped fluoridating its water in 2011.

Dr. William Ghali, scientific director at the O’Brien Institute for Public Health, listened to the latest council discussion and said it appeared councillors would like to have more information on fluoride but simply saw too much political risk in formally requesting a study from his group.

‘Political hot potato’

He said even asking for the information could make it look like they were reopening the “very divisive issue” of fluoridation, just as they enter an election year.

“I think it was, in the end, just a political hot potato,” Ghali said.

“Even though there was no cost, I think the political sensitivity around signalling to the citizens of the city that they’re revisiting the question was too tricky to them.”

Ward 7 Coun. Druh Farrell, who voted against the motion, told the Calgary Eyeopener  she believes focusing solely on whether to add fluoride to the water misses the point.

“The problem is so much bigger than fluoride,” she said.

Farrell said the fact that Edmonton — where fluoride is still added to the water — also has high rates of tooth decay demonstrates that the problem is complex.

The onus should be on Alberta Health, not municipalities, to make dental care more accessible for low-income children and to promote healthier eating habits, she said.

“We’re focusing on this one solution that obviously isn’t working the way it should.”

Calgary family physician Dr. David Keegan said he’s disappointed in council’s decision.

“We’ve got a limited pool of public money and we have to make decisions. So those decisions that we should make, should be ones that are evidence-based and at the lowest cost for the value. Fluoride is one of them.”

Asked about the issue on Wednesday, Health Minister Sarah Hoffman said the province has research findings available regarding the safety of water fluoridation. She said ultimately it’s a jurisdictional responsibility of municipalities to determine whether to add fluoride to tap water.


  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the study published by Lindsay McLaren found a greater rate of tooth decay among kids in Calgary than in Edmonton. In fact, it found a greater increase in tooth decay in Calgary than Edmonton.
    Sep 15, 2016 2:18 PM MT