New Brunswick dentists are urging Saint John Common Council to keep fluoride in the drinking water as the city grapples with swelling water costs.

Saint John is one of only three New Brunswick municipalities that continues to add fluoride to the water supply as a way to prevent tooth decay. The others are Oromocto and Dieppe, said Dr. Kent Orlando, president of the New Brunswick Dental Society.

“All the major health organizations support water fluoridation as a cost-effective means of reaching the general public to help prevent cavities, not just in kids, but in adults as well,” he said. “It’s something we support.”

When the association heard that groups that don’t support fluoridation were presenting council with documents, the society members wanted to add their voice to the debate, he said. The society presented a letter to council in late November.

Fluoridation in safe levels “drastically” reduces cavities, he said.

Toothpaste and other dental products, combined with regular visits to the dentists, are enough on their own to prevent cavities, but “we realize not everyone is doing proper dental hygiene,” he said.

Saint John’s socio-economic make-up, with a few high poverty areas, is another reason to provide the fluoridation, he said.

Over the next year, Saint John council will be faced with making a decision over the future of water fluoridation, which has been in place since at least the 1990s.

Deputy Mayor Stephen Chase said the cost of adding fluoride is “substantial,” and though he didn’t have precise figures, he said it costs ratepayers more than buying a tube of toothpaste every week.

“The question arises, do you want to spend this money on fluoride, particularly when other modalities of treatment are available” he said?

As the city works to modernize the drinking water system, at a cost of $164 million – including a new water treatment plant on the city’s east side – every dollar counts, Chase said. Water rates are already expected to increase over the next few years.

Chase also said the fluoride can make the water more corrosive, which can cause build-up in pipes. The city could prevent the corrosion by “buffering” the water, but has never spent the money to take that measure, he said.

The corrosive water can also draw out lead from lead soldering in people’s home pipes, he said.

As it stands, the city adds fluoride to the water throughout the city.

However, earlier this year, fluoride was cut off to water customers west of the Reversing Falls bridge because of major work happening at the Spruce Lake water shed, which caused workers to cut fluoride lines.

As well, there was no fluoridation of water east of the Reversing Falls from June 2006 until January 2010, which angered area dentists. The removal occurred after a fire in a mechanical building damaged a feed line.

The fluoride issue is somewhat controversial, Orlando said, with several vocal organizations suggesting the negative effects outweigh the positives.

A 2008 panel told Health Canada that fluoride levels in drinking water needed to be limited to balance cavity protection with the risk of dental fluorosis, which leads to staining or pitting of the teeth if too much fluoride is ingested.

But Orlando, who is a dentist in Woodstock, said the substance is a cost-effective way to reach those who don’t always have access to care.

“We try to prevent cavities. We see pain and suffering that comes of it, and children who miss school and can’t concentrate because of painful teeth.

“It’s all about trying to make people’s oral health better. When your oral health is good general health is good as well.”