MINISTERS are planning to allow fluoride to be added to all drinking water in England and Wales despite continuing concerns about the long-term health risks, leaked cabinet papers have revealed.
They have ordered the controversial move because they believe it is the best way of reducing tooth decay among children from “deprived” areas.
Only about 11% of the population receive fluoridated water and the move is certain to spark a fierce debate.
Although water fluoridation has been proved to reduce tooth decay, critics fear it may also be linked to increased risks of cancers, hip fractures, kidney trouble and even birth defects.
They see it as a form of “mass medication”, leaving people no choice but to buy bottled water if they do not agree with the policy. They point out that people can look after their teeth perfectly well by using fluoride toothpaste.
The documents reveal Tony Blair is personally backing the plan to extend fluoridation.
A document signed by health and environment ministers last month concludes that opponents are in a minority and that “this minority should not be allowed to deprive health communities from opting for fluoridation by insisting on an indefinite research programme”.
Ministers will introduce the change in amendments later this month to the Water Bill, allowing strategic health authorities to order fluoridation after consulting the local population.
In September the Medical Research Council, a government-funded agency, reported that more information about potential health risks, including links between fluoridation and cancer rates, was “needed by the public to make informed decisions”.
The plans are so controversial that the prime minister has agreed to allow cabinet members and other Labour MPs a rare free vote on the issue. Ministers are confident, however, the changes will be supported by a clear majority, as opinion polls have consistently shown that about two-thirds of people believe fluoridation to be beneficial.
Ministers argue the measures are justified because children in fluoridated areas have much less tooth decay.
A letter from Hazel Blears, the health minister, and Elliot Morley, the environment minister, says: “Those who remain adamantly opposed would be able to use water filters that remove fluoride or buy bottled drinking water.”
The letter, dated April 15, is addressed to John Prescott, the deputy prime minister, in his role chairing the domestic affairs cabinet committee.
It says: “Experience of oral health promotion projects shows that it is much harder to establish regular toothbrushing in deprived areas – because of the costs of toothpaste and, perhaps, because of the less-ordered lifestyles lived by families.”
The proposed change would transfer responsibility for deciding to treat water away from the water companies and give it to regional strategic health authorities.
Manchester would be one of the first to act. Other areas where tooth decay is a problem include inner London, south Wales, Yorkshire and the East Midlands.