The biting debate over whether to add fluoride to Montreal’s water supply has once again surfaced.
With less than three weeks to go before Montrealers head to the polls Nov. 6, pro and anti-fluoride groups are stirring up controversy in city hall. They are hot on the heels of an announcement made earlier this month by former mayor Pierre Bourque in which Bourque pledged to fluoridate Montreal’s water supply if elected.
“Montreal is the last city of this size in North America not to be fluoridated,” said Dr. Stephane Schwartz, the director of the Montreal Children’s dental clinic.
Schwartz is “fed up.” She is seeing an increase of tooth decay in very young children. These children—some as young as three years old—often have to go under general anesthesia to be treated.
“The waiting period is a year and a half. We send them to have it done privately, and they don’t have the money. So they have to wait a year and a half and they come back to us. It’s a very frustrating experience,” she said.
Schwartz says studies have shown that fluoride lowers tooth decay by 30 to 40 per cent. Fluoride works by making the teeth stronger and more resistant to bacterial invasion.
A 2004 study by the Institut national de santé publique du Québec compared cavity rates in preschool-aged children in various Montreal boroughs. In Dorval, the only borough to fluoridate its water besides Pointe Claire, cavity rates were eight per cent, compared to 47 per cent and 42 per cent in non-fluoridated Cote des Neiges and Pointe-St-Charles, respectively.
But Ryan Young, a Montreal-based activist with a Masters degree in environmental studies, disagrees that fluoride protects teeth from decay. He cited a study by the United States public health services, which shows that fluoride has little, if any, impact in reducing tooth decay.
“United States public health service dental records of over 39,000 schoolchildren ages five to 17 from 84 areas around the United States showed that the number of decayed, missing, and filled teeth per child was virtually the same in fluoridated and non-fluoridated areas,” Young explained.
“In a study in New Zealand done by the chief dental officer of the Department of Health, statistics from about 60,000 12 to 13 year-old children showed that fluoridation had no significant effect on tooth decay rates,” he added.
Young, who also sits on the board of directors of the Green Coalition, is part of a local group vehemently opposed to water fluoridation. The most famous of these historically was former mayor Jean Drapeau, who fought to keep Montreal’s water fluoride-free while other Canadian cities went ahead with fluoridation.
Young says that prior to 1945, fluoride was regarded as an environmental pollutant. It was a by-product of the aluminum and phosphate fertilizer industries.
And, he says, a poison.
“It’s basically one of the most poisonous chemicals there is. Fluoride is more poisonous than lead and just slightly less poisonous than arsenic. And it’s a cumulative poison that accumulates in the bone over the years.”
Young referred to a 1988 article in Chemical and Engineering News magazine which claimed that in the 1950’s, scientists and clinicians who opposed fluoridation were threatened, censored, and ridiculed.
“Anybody who knew about fluoride back then knew that it was a pollutant that needed to be reduced or eliminated from the environment. A clever bit of public relations campaigns followed, and fluoride was transformed from an environmental pollutant to an essential nutrient necessary for producing healthy teeth,” said Young.
“It’s obvious that if fluoridation was so important and they were so concerned about our health, then they would make it pharmaceutical-grade fluoride. But apparently it’d be too expensive to make pharmaceutical-grade fluoride, so instead we get the fluoride from the aluminum industry. Therefore, apparently, it’s not just fluoride; it’s a bunch of other toxic chemicals from the same industry.”
These toxic chemicals include known carcinogens such as arsenic, lead, and chromium, according to a published 1992 chemical analysis of heavy metals in hydrofluosilicic acid, a chemical used in water fluoridation.
So rather than fluoridate the water supply, why not just encourage kids to drink less sugar-laden soda pop and brush their teeth regularly?
“The problem is that we are dealing with a socio-economically weak population that doesn’t have a concept of prevention,” said Schwartz. “80 per cent of dental disease is concentrated in 20 per cent of the population—the 20 per cent who are poorer and less educated. We’re not going to tell them to take supplements and brush their teeth twice a day. It just doesn’t work with them.”
Schwartz added that the government spent a lot of money educating the public about dental health over the past five years, but during that same period, tooth decay rates have risen.
“In the sea, fluoride is present at about one to 1.4 parts per million,” said Schwartz. “We only want to raise the levels in the drinking water to 0.7 ppm.” This level is low enough to be safe while effectively protecting against tooth decay, she says.
Schwartz also disagrees with critics who say drinking fluoridated water would not be beneficial because the chemical is not in contact long enough with the teeth. She says children derive benefits from fluoridated water in other ways besides drinking it—like chewing cooked carrots that have been boiled in it, for example.
Young painted a different picture of the fluoride situation in Europe, where most governments have banned fluoride in public water supplies. “People don’t tolerate fluoride being in their water in Europe, so why should we in North America?” he asked.