Many of us put our trust in chemical fluoride as a safe and effective weapon in the fight against tooth decay. In parts of the UK, water supplies come with fluoride already added, and dentists here have recently called for this practice to be made more widespread. However, the British enthusiasm for fluoride is not shared in other parts of Europe. The Belgian government has recently outlawed the of fluoride tablets and chewing gum, and many European countries have said a flat no to the addition of fluoride to their water supplies.

Dental decay remains a relatively common problem. From a nutritional perspective, there is evidence that a diet low in sugar and refined starches, but rich in unprocessed plant matter, such as salad ingredients, helps to protect our teeth from decay. In addition to these tooth-friendly fundamentals, dentists extol the virtues of regular brushing and the use of fluoride, too.

While we have been adding fluoride to our water for the past 40 years, it is well recognised that the quality of the original studies into this practice left a lot to be desired. Recently, a large review of the scientific literature on water fluoridation was published in the British Medical Journal. The results of this research, commonly referred to as the York study, showed that the rationale for water fluoridation is based on weak scientific evidence. In addition, the study found that just one in six people drinking fluoridated water appears to benefit from this practice. Not only that, but almost half of individuals drinking fluoridated water at permissible levels exhibit a condition known as dental fluorosis – a mottling and discolouration of the teeth caused by fluoride toxicity. Some dentists question the wisdom of preventing dental disease in one in six people, only to cause it in one in two.

In Ireland, where 70 per cent of the water supply is fluoridated, there has been mounting opposition to the practice. Many parties are not just citing the lack of evidence of clear benefit, but also potential health risks posed by the unmonitored ingestion of a potentially toxic chemical. The recent Belgian ban on fluoride was based on fears that it might increase the risk of osteoporosis. Some have also raised issues about the ethics of water fluoridation, claiming that this is essentially mass medication without consent. It is sobering to note that the following European countries have rejected water fluoridation: Germany, Belgium, Sweden, Italy, Denmark, Holland and France.

Personally, I think there are real medical and ethical question marks over the practice of water fluoridation. Yet, in the face of these, the British Dental Association has urged the government to expand the proportion of people in the UK receiving fluoridated water from 10 to 25 per cent. My advice: don’t swallow it.