When there’s doubt, take it out.

That was the message councillors delivered loud and clear Thursday night after taking the first step to remove fluoride from drinking water in all Halton municipalities.

Members of the region’s health and social services committee supported a motion by Halton Hills councillor Clark Somerville to stop fluoridating water in Halton once current supplies of fluoride are used up and current contracts expire.

“When you’re in doubt, don’t do it,” said Milton councillor Colin Best at the meeting.

The recommendation was made against the advice of health department staff and Halton’s medical officer of health, Dr. Bob Nosal, who said fluoridating drinking water is a safe, efficient and cost-effective way to prevent tooth decay.

Currently, the older section of Milton is the only portion of Halton that doesn’t have fluoridated water. Halton Hills’ well-based water system is fluoridated, as are the lake-based water systems supplying Burlington, Oakville and the newer developments in Milton.

Best said that, as a representative of the only community without fluoride in its water, “not one person in my ward has asked for fluoridation.”

He added no other medical treatment is dispensed through drinking water.

Burlington Councillor Rick Goldring also supported the motion.

“There’s enough doubt here that I don’t think we can carry on with the status quo,” he said.

Committee members also voted for staff to report back on the feasibility of an alternative way to get fluoride to the residents who want it.

The motion to stop fluoridating went against the position expressed in a staff report by Halton Medical Officer of Health Bob Nosal. It states dental decay rates are lower in communities with fluoridated water than in those without it.

For every $1 invested in fluoridating water, $38 is saved in treatment costs, it states.

Nosal made it clear at the meeting he didn’t agree with taking fluoride out of the water. “As medical officer of health, (I say) we should continue fluoridating the water supply,” he told councillors.

He noted major organizations supporting fluoridation include the World Health Organization and Health Canada. Putting the $238,000 it takes to fluoridate Halton’s water toward a “plan B” won’t amount to much, he said.

“That’ll only be a drop in the bucket,” he said, explaining alternative ways to deliver fluoride to residents will cost millions. “You can’t do anything with $200,000; that’s why we put it (fluoride) in the water.”

Dr. Robert Hawkins, Halton Region’s public health dentist, explained one of the reasons fluoride in the water is so effective is there’s no compliance factor. “High-risk kids” who might not brush their teeth at all still get the benefits.

Burlington Councillor Carol D’Amelio asked Nosal why he didn’t invoke the “cautionary principle” as he did with the issue of pesticides, in which he essentially aired on the safe side.

Nosal replied the cautionary principle applies when there’s a risk hazard involved and he doesn’t believe there is one here. “The evidence is clear that at the levels we’re fluoridating, there is no health effect,” he said.

D’Amelio questioned whether it was practical to stop adding fluoride to water before looking at alternative ways to get fluoride to the residents who want it.

“I’m not ready to throw the baby out with the bath water,” she said.

Voting against the motion to stop fluoridating water were Regional Chair Gary Carr and D’Amelio.

Councillors also recommended that the cost of the current fluoridation program — about $238,000 — be transferred to the health department from the infrastructure services and engineering budget. The committee’s vote came after spirited presentations by 13 delegates — three in favour of fluoridation, 10 against.

“Fluoride is a toxic waste product that should never be allowed in drinking water,” said Milton organic farmer Paul Bousfield.

Oakville resident Diane Sprules agreed, saying 98 per cent of western Europe doesn’t fluoridate its water and “their teeth are as good or better than ours.”

Numerous speakers cited concerns over warnings on toothpaste tubes directing people to call poison control if toothpaste — which contains fluoride — is swallowed.

They also cited concerns over fluorosis, which causes white spots on teeth when a person has too much fluoride in their body. A few speakers said the white spots are just an outward symptom of something more serious going on inside the body.

Also of deep concern to many of the speakers are warnings that babies not drink fluoridated water.

On hand to defend the practice was Dr. Peter Cooney, Health Canada’s chief dental officer, who said studies show drinking fluoridated water helps to reduce tooth decay by 20-40 per cent in kids and teens and by 27 per cent in adults.

Committee members also voted unanimously to support the formation of an Ontario Water Fluoridation Office, which would keep abreast of research and evaluate the effectiveness of fluoridation. The item will go to regional council for a vote Wednesday.