MUSKOKA – Water wars raged in the district council chamber this past year.
The fluoridation of municipal water was one of the most heated topics within the District Municipality of Muskoka in 2011.
The battle began when Huntsville resident and dentist Jim Bjork told district council fluoride was a health hazard and that its addition to drinking water was illegal under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Bjork compared fluoride to toxic waste and referenced studies gathered by the Fluoride Action Network, which opposes water fluoridation.
“Naturally occurring fluoride is called calcium fluoride,” he said. “This is sodium fluoride (in the water). It’s a different kettle of fish.”
Debates on fluoridation have been ongoing in the region for years, but a string of presentations and letters to district council in regard to the presence of the substance in municipal drinking water began in earnest this March.
After hearing from the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit, the district’s engineering and public works committee decided in April to continue fluoridating the region’s water.
Dr. Charles Gardner, medical officer of health and chief executive officer of the health unit, refuted claims that fluoride is harmful. He compared fluoride in water to vitamin D in milk or iodine in salt.
“People living in areas with (fluoridated water) have a rate of tooth decay that is 20 to 40 per cent lower than those who do not have this benefit,” he wrote in a letter.’
“The tooth decay rates in Gravenhurst, Bracebridge and Huntsville, for example, are demonstrably lower compared to non-fluoridated towns in Simcoe County.”
Gardner also pointed to 18 medical reviews done in various countries that found no evidence that fluoridated water is harmful.
Tony White, the district’s commissioner of engineering and public works, countered claims that fluoridation is illegal in a report to the committee.
Though the Safe Drinking Water Act prohibits the addition of hazardous substances to drinking water, White said fluoridation is okay under the act because it counts as standard procedure for “the proper operation, maintenance, repair or alteration of a drinking water system.”
According to White, fluoridation costs Muskoka about $43,200 each year, not counting the cost of labour and other expenses such as protective clothing for staff.
The debate sparked a flurry of letters written by Muskoka residents, both for and against fluoridation.
It also prompted presentations by health professionals such as dentist Dr. Keith Morley, who spoke to council in favour of fluoridation as a preventative for fatal tooth decay.
But other professionals such as dentist Dr. Richard Smyth opposed the chemical’s use, citing the toxic origins of inorganic fluoride and alternate methods in fighting tooth decay.
In April, council voted to keep fluoridating the region’s municipal water supply, but the discussion did not end there.
Council’s decision ignited letter writers and presenters who urged council to overturn its decision and scrap fluoridation.
Ruth and Richard Bednar gave a deputation to district council in June asking it to revisit its previous ruling.
By then, however, some councillors seemed fed up with the fluoridation debate and seven councillors had voted against hearing the deputation before it began.
“We’ve had many (presentations) before, both for and against, at this council, and committees have also discussed it at length,” Lake of Bays mayor Bob Young protested. “We have heard the story, we’ve made our decision.”
In response to Young, Huntsville Coun. Fran Coleman spoke in favour of hearing the Bednars.
“While I concur to some degree with Coun. Young’s comments, we have not heard from the Bednars before,” said Coleman. “The community, as individuals, has a right to address this council.”
The Bednars had already been denied an opportunity to address a district committee in May.
But they got their opportunity and Ruth Bednar commented on the growing support of international health professionals to end fluoridation practices, stating that the substance is a topical medication not meant to be ingested.
Afterward, Georgian Bay Coun. Mike Kennedy, a board of health member who supports fluoridation, said he would be happy to take the matter back to the board, though he commented that he thought the issue had “run its course.”
Some residents were also concerned about the impact manufactured fluoride was having on Muskoka’s watershed.
Herman Clemens, director of water and sewer operations for the district, later said the Ministry of the Environment had measured the amount of fluoride in Muskoka’s lakes and reported levels of 0.04 mg/L.
The ministry described it as a trace amount and cautioned that the actual amount could be lower because, according to Clemens, 0.04 mg/L is the lowest reading the test instruments could register.