Cavities or not, Calgary’s fight for fluoride continues on

In what has continued to be a contentious issue over the last decade, Calgarians will add their voices to the city’s fluoride issue on October 18 in the seventh plebiscite on the issue.

By Krista Sylvester | September 13, 2021 |5:15 am

In 2011, city council decided to discontinue fluoridating Calgary’s drinking water. The contentious issue will go to a plebiscite on October 18, 2021.

Photo: Shutterstock

When it comes to the debate on whether to re-add fluoride to the city’s water system or not — there’s no easy answer. It’s been a debated issue that spans over a decade and it’s still as contentious as it was all those years ago. 

Below we looked at both sides of the conversation, where it stems from and why it’s a debate in the first place. 

Fluoride’s history in Calgary

According to the city, Calgarians voted in favour of adding fluoride to the city’s drinking water in a 1989 plebiscite. By 1991, fluoride was being added to Calgary’s drinking water at a target of 1.0 mg/L.

Calgary discontinued the addition of fluoride to Calgary’s drinking water as directed by Council on May 19, 2011, due to questions about the safety of fluoride in drinking water. Council decided it should be up to individuals to decide whether to expose themselves to the additive.

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Health Canada’s Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality continue to recommend optimal fluoride dosing to be 0.7 mg/L and has set a maximum allowable concentration of 1.5 mg/L.

The City of Calgary has said it saves about $750,000 a year by not adding fluoride to the water, but it could cost around $10.1 million in initial capital expenses and about $1 million in annual operating and maintenance costs to start again, according to the city. 

In Alberta, only Lethbridge, Red Deer and Edmonton add fluoride to the water while cities including Banff, Canmore, Medicine Hat, Okotoks, Cochrane, and High River don’t. 

The upcoming plebiscite

That’s why Ward 13 councillor Diane Colley-Urquhart says Calgarians will see the question of adding fluoride back into the city’s water system on their ballots when they go to the municipal polls on October 18, 2021. 

Colley-Urquhart plans to accept the will of Calgarians on the issue — and she urges her fellow councillors, the majority of which will be new faces on council and not as familiar with the ongoing debate, to do the same. 

“What’s important is that there’s probably going to be at least nine members of council that are new. And all these new ones that are running that don’t have the background, they better make a commitment to honour the plebiscite results,” she says. 

“So, in other words, this is really up to Calgarians to speak with a loud, clear voice in order for us to get this back in.” 

Colley-Urquhart was one of the councillors who voted to stop adding to fluoride from the water in 2011, a decision she says she now regrets. 

“I think one of the biggest lessons in my political life was the error I made to remove fluoride,” she says, adding she was simply trying to support her council colleagues who brought forward an emergency notion of motion on the matter. 

“I supported them. And it was one of the biggest lessons and one of the most significant mistakes I made as an elected leader, but I learned a lot from it.”

She recognizes it’s a very divisive issue. 

“Just as there are anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers, there are anti-fluoride people.” 

The case for fluoride

A recent study out of the University of Calgary found that Calgary has overtaken Edmonton for rates of cavities in baby teeth over a five-year period. 

The study, published in July in the medical journal Community Dentistry and Oral Epidemiology, compared the dental health of children in the two Alberta cities. 

Of the approximately 2,600 grade two students in each city who took part in the study, 55.1% of Edmonton participants had one or more cavities in their baby teeth in Edmonton where there is still fluoride in the water. 

In Calgary, where there is no fluoride in the water, 64.8% of children had one or more cavities in their baby teeth. 

Our findings are quite clear — fluoridation cessation is having a negative effect on children’s dental health in Calgary. This reinforces the need for universal, publicly funded prevention activities—including, but not limited to, fluoridation of drinking water.

Primary study investigator and U of C professor from the U of C Cumming School of Medicine, Dr. Lindsay McLaren says the findings indicate that fluoridation cessation is having a negative effect on children’s dental health in Calgary. 

“Cavities can significantly affect children’s health and well-being, and since Calgary stopped fluoridation, we have virtually nothing in the way of primary prevention for this almost entirely preventable problem,” she says, adding cavities can be painful, and they can affect a child’s ability to concentrate and learn. 

Information for the study was collected over several months in 2018/2019 which means the Calgary participants were born after fluoride was taken out of the water supply. 

“This is a public health measure with 75 years of evidence,” Juliet Guichon, who is the president of Calgarians for Kids’ Health and is an associate professor at the U of C’s Cumming School of Medicine says. 

The case against fluoride

Those who are against adding fluoride to water have been a steadfast and vocal group and include some of the members on council today, namely Ward 7 councillor Druh Farrell, who led the anti-fluoride charge. 

Another vocal voice is Dr. Robert Dickson, who has been actively involved in challenging fluoride for the last 22 years. Dr. Dickson is also the president of Safe Water Calgary, an anti-fluoridation group. 

They’re asking people to research and sign their petition against adding fluoride back to the water. He says the recent U of C study is flawed and that the information is being “cherry-picked” and says the difference in cavities has nothing to do with water fluoridation. 

Dr. Dickson points to statistics showing that 98% of British Columbia, 98% of Quebec, and 97% of Europe do not fluoridate their water. He and his group believe fluoride is harmful to people, especially children, and believe it affects the brain, thyroid, and bones. 

“It’s a medicine that’s been approved by the Supreme Court of Canada and by the FDA in the states. It’s a medicine, it’s not a nutrient like they try to get you to believe sometimes,” he says, adding that fluoride is a proven neurotoxin. 

“It’s not a vitamin, it’s not a mineral that’s good for the body. It’s nothing that’s beneficial. It’s not needed for one single body function and that should be put in big, bold letters somewhere.” 

He’s concerned that such an important decision is being passed on to Calgarians to vote on. 

“Asking you and your neighbours to vote on whether or not to medicate all of the citizens of Calgary? It’s just a very poor way of doing medicine. It’s council abdicating responsibility.” 

EDITOR’S NOTE: As this is a highly contentious issue, we encourage you to research both sides of the issue and decide for yourself what is best for you and your family before the plebiscite. We are not endorsing either side of the issue, rather presenting both sides for you to make your own decisions.

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Krista Sylvester

Reporter at Calgary Citizen

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