Fluoride safety, effectiveness debated

The issue of fluoridation was up for debate on Saturday as two chemists squared off on the issue.

The Great Fluoride Debate was hosted by a group of local fluoridation opponents. On Nov. 15 Prince George residents will vote in a non-binding referendum on the current practice of fluoridating the city's water.

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Arguing against continued fluoridation was Paul Connett, director of the Fluoride Action Network and co-author of The Case Against Fluoride. Connett made a lengthy presentation during an information session ahead of the main debate.

"[Water fluoridation] is the only time we've used the public water supply to deliver medicine to people. The community is doing to everyone what a doctor can do to no one," Connett said. "It goes to everybody, including bottle-fed infants. A bottle-fed baby gets 250 times more fluoride [in areas with fluoridated water] than a breast-fed baby. It goes to people who have poor kidney function. It is completely indiscriminant."

Public water fluoridation was introduced as a public health measure in the 1940s to combat tooth decay. According to a 2012 British study, approximately 370 million people around the world drink artificially-fluoridated water, while another 50 million drink water with naturally-occuring levels of fluoride consider optimal for preventing tooth decay.

However, Connett argued, there are new studies showing that ingesting fluoride in drinking water has little impact on tooth health, but is linked to increased risk of dental fluorosis -a discolouring of the teeth - may be linked to reduced brain development, lowered IQs and other health problems.

"That evidence that fluoride lowers IQ is stronger than the evidence that it lowers tooth decay," Connett said. "What we should be talking about is the margin of safety. There is no margin of safety protect children against lowered IQ."

The issue is particularly critical for lower-income families who may not be able to afford to drink bottled or filtred water -the very children that public water fluoridation is supposed to project from tooth decay, he said.

Tooth decay is trending downward across the developed world, he said, and there is no evidence tooth decay is lower in countries where fluoridation is prevalent than in countries where fluoridation is not used, he said. Alternative programs have been used in places like Scotland to help lower tooth decay in vulnerable populations without subjecting them to fluoridated water.

Fluoridated toothpaste and dental products use a topical treatment of much higher-grade fluoride found in drinking water supplies, Connett added.

"If you used the same grade of fluoride as dental products, it would be cost prohibitive," Connett said.

FLUORIDE 'A FALSE DEBATE'

UNBC bio-inorganic chemist Todd Whitcombe said in serious scientific circles there is no more debate about the safety and effectiveness of water fluoridation than there is about the reality of human-caused climate change.

Whitcombe is the chair of chemistry, environmental science and environmental engineering at UNBC and The Citizen's science columnist. Whitcombe said, while fluoridation is not his area of specialty "I have read a great many of the studies and a great many of the books and remain unconvinced there is an issue."

"The general consensus... is that fluoridation accounts for about a 25 per cent factor in the health of teeth. It helps... a whole group of people who don't have access to the dental health services we'd like [them to have,]" Whitcombe said.

Health Canada, Canadian Dental Association, Canadian Paediatric Society and the World Health Organization -along with public health and dental organizations around the world -support public water fluoridation.

"For more than 50 years water fluoridation has helped communities improve dental and oral health. It seems natural in its quest to improve the oral health of Canadian, the CAPHD[Canadian Association of Public Health Dentistry] supports water fluoridation," says the CAPHD's official position statement of fluoridation.

In 2007 an expert panel assembled by Health Canada reviewed the studies claiming fluoridation can harm brain development and found the weight of evidence does not support their claims.

The methodology of many of the studies Connett relies on have been questioned, Whitcombe said. Besides, he added, fluoride occurs frequently in natural drinking water and finding population who have not been exposed to it through toothpaste, dental treatments and other sources is nearly impossible.

The massive weight of scientific evidence supports that fluoridation is both safe and effective, Whitcombe said.

An average adult would have to drink about 500 litres of fluoridated water in a single sitting to get a dangerous dose of fluoride, he said.

On the issue of ethics, he said if the ethics of putting fluoride in water are questioned than society must also question other public health measures such as using chlorine -a toxic substance used as a chemical weapon in the First World War -to purify drinking water; the addition of vitamin D in milk; and the addition of folic acid to bread as well.

"We are living longer, healthier lives than any generation in history. The reason we live longer is because we have certain public health measures," Whitcombe said. "If it's a question of medical ethics... I'm not a medical ethicist, and either is my opponent. But I have colleagues who are medical ethicists. When I asked them about it, they don't have a problem with it."

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