Backers of water fluoridation get boost from Calgary studies

Mary Otto

About Mary Otto

Mary Otto, a Washington, D.C.-based freelancer, is AHCJ's topic leader on oral health and the author of "Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America." She can be reached at mary@healthjournalism.org.

Tooth decay rates among children in Calgary, Canada have spiked in recent years.

The authors of two newly published studies say they suspect a decision by Calgary officials to discontinue the city’s water fluoridation program in 2011 could be to blame.

In Edmonton, where water fluoridation has continued, tooth decay has risen too, but not as much.

“We believe that the reason (the rate of tooth decay) got worse in Calgary than in Edmonton was because fluoride was stopped,” University of Calgary professor and researcher Lindsay McLaren told Toronto’s Globe and Mail.

Papers describing her team’s findings were published in February in two open access journals, Community Dentistry and Oral Epidemiology and International Journal for Equity in Health.

Decay rates in Calgary second graders were up by an average of 3.8 decayed tooth surfaces in the 2013-14 school year when compared with the 2004-5 school year. Decay rates increased by 2.1 surfaces among Edmonton children over the same period, the researchers found.

About 45 percent of Canadians drink fluoridated water, the Globe and Mail’s Carrie Tait reported in her story.

Three quarters of Americans on public water systems receive fluoridated water, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Numerous studies have concluded that fluoridation at recommended levels is safe and helps prevent tooth decay. Yet fluoridation efforts continue to stir controversies.

Here in the United States, for example, voters in Portland, Ore., used a 2013 ballot initiative to overturn their city council’s decision to fluoridate the city’s water.

In some Canadian communities, fluoridation is being similarly questioned, Tait reported in her Feb. 17 story.

“Canadians have been drinking fluoridated water for more than six decades, but debate continues,” Tait wrote. “Councillors in Ontario’s Peel Region, for example, recently formed a committee to reexamine fluoridating. A resident of Terrace, B.C. last week presented local politicians with a petition signed by hundreds of people wanting to end fluoridating. Scores of cities have turned to plebiscites to make decisions on fluoride.”

In their published studies of Calgary and Edmonton McLaren and her team noted that additional research is needed, both to explore possible alternative explanations for the findings and to gain a fuller understanding of the potential oral health consequences of discontinuing water fluoridation programs.

In her interview with the Globe and Mail, the professor indicated that the new evidence about increases in tooth decay should be considered by officials weighing such decisions.

“An increasing number of municipalities across Canada are revisiting their fluoridation policy, and until now they had very, very little in the way of evidence on implications of cessation for dental health,” McLaren told the newspaper.

In a February 19 opinion piece that also ran in the Globe and Mail, columnist Tabatha Southey criticized Calgary’s 2011 decision to discontinue fluoridation “after one day of hearings, with no public vote or expert consultation.”

And she dismissed the conspiracy theories that have helped fuel discussions about fluoridation.

“One of the more vocal advocates of discontinuing the fluoridation of Calgary’s water has been a family doctor in that city, one Robert C. Dickson … Dr. Dickson has spoken of an effort to ‘whitewash fluoride,’ which he says ‘was a major component of manufacturing atomic weapons during the 1940s,’ and going on from there,” she wrote.

“He wasn’t the only one with input at that meeting in Calgary, of course,” she noted. Yet in the end, the council sided with the anti-fluoridationists.

“It was yet another instance, in these days of the rubella renaissance, of science being pitted against silliness, and silliness winning the day,” Southey wrote.

“Now, everyone rinse and spit.”

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