IT took just two hours to reverse the trend of the past two decades.
Heath bosses yesterday unanimously backed a scheme to add fluoride to the water supplies of nearly 200,000 people across south Hampshire.
At an emotionally-charged meeting at St Mary’s Stadium, unelected members of South Central Strategic Health Authority’s board voted to support the scheme in an attempt to improve the poor dental health record among the city’s children. Tempers flared though as the show of hands among executives revealed they were giving the controversial scheme the green light.
Angry campaigners shouted abuse, saying they had ignored the wishes of the people and denouncing the consultation process as a “sham”.
One woman even stormed to the front and threw tablets into stunned board members’ glasses of water while hurling criticism. She was asked to leave by security staff.
It is the first time anywhere in the UK that fluoridation of the water supply has come so close to reality. A recent change in the law placed responsibility for the issue in the hands of health authorities rather than councils.
The vote will have been watched closely across the country. Many other areas are looking at similar plans.
Yesterday’s decision, which means fluoride could be added to tap water in parts of Southampton, Eastleigh, Totton, Netley and Rownhams as soon as next year, comes after months of fierce debate.
Southampton City Primary Care Trust proposed the scheme saying targeted health measures have failed to stop high rates of tooth decay in children.
It argued that fluoridation was the only way to target more deprived areas of the city, where youngsters suffer chronic dental health problems.
But campaigners opposed to the scheme complained it amounts to unethical mass-medication, removing individuals’ choice. They say fluoride is a “dangerous poison” that leads to disfigured teeth, brittle bones, cancers and even lowered IQ. More than 10,000 people had their say during the three-month public consultation on the plans, with nearly three-quarters of those living in the area who responded saying they were against the scheme.
A separate phone poll to get the views of a cross-section of the affected population showed more of the 2,000 people surveyed were opposed than in favour, although neither side was in the majority.
Before voting, SHA board members also heard they had to weigh up the extensive and often conflicting scientific evidence put forward by both sides.
“The board has received and considered a great amount of information,” said chairman Geoffrey Harris.
“We must exercise our judgement as to whether the health benefits to the people of Southampton through adjusting the level of fluoride outweighs all the arguments against it.”
Watched by a large audience including England’s chief dental officer Dr Barry Cockcroft, all decided they were convinced by the case for fluoridation, voting 11-0 in favour.
Dr Harris told the meeting he would have had the casting vote in the event of a tie, and he too would have given it his backing.
Board members last night dismissed claims the consultation process was a whitewash, and the decision had been pre-determined.
“It’s absolutely not true. We didn’t know what the outcome was going to be,” said Professor John Newton, the regional director of public health.
“We have asked some searching questions throughout the process, and I’m sure each member came to their own decision on the strengths and weaknesses of fluoridation.
“The board have taken a very close look at all the evidence and the responses.
“Given the significant problems of dental health in Southampton, the board felt it gives us the best chance of giving people a better start in life.”
The SHA will now enter legal discussions with Southern Water to discuss the practicalities of adding fluoride to the water. That is expected to take at least a year, but residents could be drinking fluoridated water as soon as 2010.