EDMONTON — After eight years without fluoride in the city’s water, a Calgary councillor was hoping that her fellow legislators would decide to have a study done on the impact of removing it.“There was no evidence to do this (in 2011),” said Coun. Diane Colley-Urquhart in advance of Monday’s vote.She urged her fellow councillors to keep an open mind about the evidence, saying she was open to hearing what the research has to say.Council agreed, voting Monday night for the University of Calgary’s O’Brien Institute for Public Health to examine the benefits and detriments of fluoridation.Dr. William Ghali of the O’Brien Institute says the study should take about three or four months, since the motion has requested the information by June.Researchers will examine available evidence on the issue rather than conduct new research themselves. The move comes as the battle between science and fantasy is in full swing because of a measles outbreak in British Columbia, and a health alert in Alberta because someone with measles had a layover at the Edmonton airport. This has reignited the debate over mandatory vaccinations.The arguments over fluoridation, more broadly, are part of the tension over what science suggests is good — modern medical care, pasteurization — and what conspiracy theorists on the internet believe. Colley-Urquhart said that, in 2011, councillors didn’t have the available information about whether or not removing fluoride would cause harm. In 2016, a comparison of dental decay rates between Calgary and Edmonton was released.“And lo and behold … it did show that we had caused harm,” she said.A 2016 attempt to have more research done failed, Colley-Urquhart said. Monday’s motion was attempt No. 2. “All I did this time, is I thought, well, I’m going to bring the same damn thing forward again,” she said. “I’m just asking for us to do a study.”What is fluoride?It’s a mineral that occurs naturally in water. For example, the North Saskatchewan River, where Edmontonians get their water, has fluoride in it at a concentration of about 0.1 parts per million. That’s raised to 0.7 parts per million in the water treatment process.What does the science say about fluoride?The scientific consensus is that fluoride is good and that it strengthens tooth enamel. Still, in some corners, there’s the belief that it’s harmful, weakening bones and causing cancer.Medical associations in Canada dispute this; the research, says the Canadian Cancer Society, points to a potential link to cancer if fluoride concentrations are at levels hundreds of times higher than they are at in city water. “It is unlikely that adding fluoride to water raises the risk of cancer … in humans,” it says.Higher concentrations of fluoride can stain teeth, says Health Canada, or harden bones and joints, if exposed to very high concentrations long term. It cannot, the health body says, harm infants or fetuses during pregnancy.
Calgary City Councillor Diane Colley-Urquhart: “I think it’s really dangerous when politicians bring in their own personal bias and their old ideas and opinions.”
Why did Calgary remove fluoride?The decision was made back in 2011 after fluoride had been in Calgary’s water for 20 years. It was partly due to austerity: the fluoridation system for the water supply needed millions of dollars in upgrades, and was costing around $750,000 to operate annually.But, there were also those who were pushing health conspiracies and some councillors believed people should have a choice regarding whether or not they used fluoride.“There are people that don’t believe in vaccines, there are people that don’t believe in blood transfusions, and so I think it’s really dangerous when politicians bring in their own personal bias and their old ideas and opinions … and they make public policy that is not in the best overall public health interest of the population,” Colley-Urquhart said. “That’s the mistake that’s been made here and I hope, I hope today that one way or another we will learn from that.”Then what happened?In the aftermath of that decision, teeth have been decaying at higher rates in Calgary than those in Edmonton, which has had fluoridated water since 1967. A study in 2013-14 found that while rates of childhood tooth decay had increased in both cities between 2004-5, it increased at a faster rate in Calgary.The only thing between the two cities that had changed notably, the researchers said, was the removal of fluoride from Calgary’s water. If Colley-Urquhart’s motion is passed, more research will be done to help inform a potential future decision about whether to keep Calgary’s water fluoride-free, or not.“I’m hoping that as legislators they will want to be informed this time and that they can have an open mind, and be open to persuasion, and let the facts lead where they may and bring in the best public policy possible,” Colley-Urquhart said.With files from the Canadian Press, National Post and Calgary Herald.• Email: firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: tylerrdawson