Calgary

'Children are suffering' as Calgary's 60+ year fluoride debate drags on, bioethicist says

Calgary's never-ending fluoridation debate played out again at city hall on Tuesday, but if you're reading this waiting for a resolution on the issue, you can stop now — there wasn't one.

Calgary removed fluoride from its drinking water in 2011

Calgary's fluoride debate was back at city hall, again, on Tuesday. (chanchai plongern/Shutterstock)

Calgary's never-ending fluoridation debate played out again at city hall on Tuesday, but if you're reading this looking for a resolution on the issue, you can stop now — there wasn't one.

Earlier this year, city council asked the O'Brien Institute of Public Health at the University of Calgary to independently review the existing science on community water fluoridation but asked the review's author not to make a recommendation.

A council committee heard the results of that review Tuesday, followed by a lengthy public hearing on the issue continuing until after 8 p.m.

It's been a longstanding debate in the city, which held plebiscites on fluoridation in 1957, 1961, 1971, 1989 and 1998. 

"Calgary city council in 2011 removed fluoridation even though they were acting against medical advice and even though taxpayers and residents had voted for it twice in two plebiscites," said Juliet Guichon, a bioethicist from the University of Calgary. 

"Now we know and we've heard this morning that many children are suffering … city council has it in their power to undo what they did."

Fluoride naturally occurs in some foods and is found in the Bow and Elbow Rivers at a concentration between 0.1 and 0.4 mg/L. Health Canada recommends water be fluoridated to a level of 0.7 mg/L to prevent tooth decay.

Pediatric specialist Dr. Cora Constantinescu told council that since fluoride was removed from Calgary drinking water in 2011, dental infections that need to be treated by IV antibioitics have increased by 700 per cent at the Alberta Children's Hospital. Half of those infections are in children under five.

The Alex Dental Health Bus — which provides mobile services to children in schools in high-needs areas — says it has a waitlist of 200 kids waiting for dental care, with the biggest demands for service coming from low-income or otherwise disadvantaged families.

But Paul Connett, a retired chemistry professor and anti-fluoride advocate who has appeared on conspiracy theorist Alex Jones' InfoWars program, said fluoride is dangerous and that if people want fluoride they should just buy fluoridated toothpaste.

"The fluoridated toothpaste works because the benefit is topical. You can brush it on your teeth and spit it out," he said.

"Why put it in the drinking water? Force it on people that don't want it?" 

Council received hundreds of pages of public submissions on the topic, most voicing concerns about impacts to public health.

Cost a factor 

The city saves about $750,000 a year by not adding fluoride to the water — and several councillors said if it's an important factor to public health, the province should pay for it.

In 2011, the city transferred $750,000 on a one-time basis to two non-profits to support dental health for children in poverty.

The American Dental Association says every $1 spent on fluoridation saves on average $38 in dental costs.

Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra said it's indisputable dental health and medical health are closely connected, and that if the province paid for it "this wouldn't be a discussion."

Guichon said the debate has been passionate and ongoing on the issue and she doesn't want to shut down that discourse. But she does want recognition that as it drags out, children are being impacted.

"I would never close down respectful debate and that's what we're having … but I think people should recognize real children are suffering real harm."

The committee voted to receive the report for information and will suggest council OK a study which would look at the costs of reintroducing fluoride into the water.

With files from Scott Dippel

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