Flush the fluoride debate

Give Red Deer city council credit for making a decision on fluoride this week, and for making the right decision. On Monday night, council voted 6-2 to maintain the existing levels of fluoride in the water supply that serves the citizens of Red Deer and a variety of nearby communities, including Blackfalds, Lacombe and Ponoka.

Give Red Deer city council credit for making a decision on fluoride this week, and for making the right decision.

On Monday night, council voted 6-2 to maintain the existing levels of fluoride in the water supply that serves the citizens of Red Deer and a variety of nearby communities, including Blackfalds, Lacombe and Ponoka.

Before the surprise decision, it seemed that council was likely to push the matter to a plebiscite, probably in conjunction with the next municipal election a year from now.

But council was ready now to make a decision, and so it did. It spent more than a year studying the issue, and the science behind the issue. It held public meetings on the issue. It had the benefit of city survey responses that suggested a decision was needed now. And it had plenty of anecdotal information that the citizen majority favoured the continuation of fluoride additives.

In short, due process was followed. Council members obviously felt they were informed, they were ready to make a decision and they made it.

Fluoride naturally occurs in water. Topping up the levels where necessary, as limited by legislation, has been proven to improve dental health, which ripples into all sorts of other health benefits.

But a vocal lobby group has maintained that fluoride additives are poison and that communities like Red Deer have no business forcing residents to ingest that poison. The science supporting that claim runs counter to a variety of credible sources, but it has muscled its way onto the agendas in more than a few municipalities in recent years. Recent letters to the editor published in the Advocate, citing any number of questionable sources that are too easily Googled, show just how insistent this movement has become, regardless of the murkiness of the claims.

The City of Calgary council, for example, banned fluoride by a vote of 4-1 in May 2011. There are 15 members on that council and only five of them actually voted, the others having bailed on a marathon public meeting. Other members of council later signed the order. The decision came despite the dissent of an expert panel that was established in 1998 by a previous council to monitor and advise councillors on the appropriate use of fluoride.

In Calgary, weird science — and the power of scare-mongering — carried the day.

In Red Deer, council waded through the piles of research, listened to the dissenters and then made a choice based on the best advice, for the greater good of citizens.

The decisiveness shown by council on this contentious issue is commendable.

It demonstrates the kind of commitment that residents want from their leaders: they gathered the facts, assessed their responsibility and acted.

No deferrals.

No waffling.

No retreat from quality information in the face of hysteria.

Of course, we need to recognize that Coun. Chris Stephan is right: a future council can certainly revisit this decision.

And we should all expect that the municipal election next fall will include, at very least, some public forum questions about fluoride. It won’t just disappear as an area of concern for some people just because council has made a decision.

But enough time, energy and money has been spent in the last year and a half. It’s counterproductive for this or any future council to drag out this debate unless the credible evidence changes dramatically.

For now, we should be happy that council was prepared to make a decision and did so with clarity and conviction.

We should be particularly happy that they made the correct decision.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.