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Calgary should add fluoride back to its public drinking water

By Jason Herring, January 17 2019 —

It’s been over two years since Calgary’s city council last debated the contentious issue of fluoridating city water. In 2019, Calgary should remedy one of its most embarrassing failings as a city by taking action to add fluoride back into public drinking water.

Water fluoridation is the process of adding a controlled amount of fluoride to public drinking water to mitigate tooth decay. Fluoride is a natural mineral that already appears in most dental hygiene products, like toothpaste.

There is a wealth of scientific backing to the claim that water fluoridation improves communities’ dental health, including a 2016 study from the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine. The study showed a higher rate of tooth decay in Calgary children compared to those of the same age in Edmonton, a city that fluoridates its water.

Those who oppose water fluoridation argue that it has negative health impacts. While it is true that excess fluoride consumption is linked to some health problems, the amount of fluoride that the city would add to drinking water does not even come close to constituting a public health risk. Making these arguments when advocating against the addition of fluoride to public water is scientific denialism tantamount to opposing vaccinations on the grounds that they cause autism.

Calgary stopped fluoridating its water in 2011 after a council vote, in which they declined to hear from a panel of dental and medical experts about the topic. In 2016, after the aforementioned Cumming School of Medicine study was released, city council voted against a motion that would have allowed the council to even consider the study.

City council didn’t vote against putting fluoride in water — they voted in favour of remaining wilfully ignorant about the topic altogether by declining an invitation from experts to provide pertinent information that directly affects the city’s public health.

However, the 2016 and 2011 votes occurred under Calgary’s former city councils. With a new group of councillors settled in and the distraction of the Olympic bid debate behind them, 2019 is the perfect time to reopen discussion on adding fluoride to Calgary’s water. Though only four council seats hold different voices than in 2016 when council last shot down fluoride discussions, the new voices could make enough of a difference to push water fluoridation as an issue of public health that city council has a responsibility to pursue.

Opponents of water fluoridation dismiss the practice on the grounds that it violates individuals’ rights to consent to medication, with no reasonable way to opt-out. But fluoridation is a class issue that leaves many without the option to opt-in — for low-income individuals and families who can’t afford dental care, the practice provides significant health benefits at minimal cost to communities.

Plus, the argument that citizens should have to consent to consuming fluoride in public drinking water is further informed by — and helps to perpetuate — a fundamental ignorance to the science and research behind the issue. Much like parents should have no legal grounds not to vaccinate their children, municipalities have no reasonable basis not to fluoridate their water.

One long-time city councillor and opponent of water fluoridation is Ward 7 Coun. Druh Farrell. She says that considering fluoride to be a “silver bullet” solution and shouldn’t absolve governments from fixing underlying factors that challenge dental health, including inequity, access to a healthy diet and universal dental care.

Farrell is absolutely right in saying that there is much more to be done to improve public dental health beyond adding fluoride to water. But preventing any incremental progress doesn’t help matters either, especially when the burden of dental care would be lessened for many Calgarians with the reinstatement of water fluoridation.

For a city the size of Calgary to go nearly eight years without water fluoridation is an embarrassment. City council should reopen debate on the topic in earnest this year. Anything less is a disservice to Calgarians.

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