Water fluoridation has been a long and contentious debate in Calgary for many years, and it’s a question that could be posed to Calgarians in the new year.
In early December, a city committee received a presentation and report on how much it would cost to re-introduce fluoride back into the city’s water system.
City administration has pegged those costs at $30.1 million over a 20-year life span, but said the capital costs could be absorbed by the water utility, which wouldn’t require an increase to water rates.
“It would have no impact whatsoever on property taxes and you would amortize the cost over many years,” Mayor Naheed Nenshi said following the meeting.
City councillors were presented with three options: do nothing, have a plebiscite on this issue in the next election, or put forward a motion to re-introduce fluoride into the city’s water system.
The report was taken as information during the committee meeting.
It’s been nine years since fluoride was removed from the city’s water supply, a decision that health advocates contend was a mistake on the city’s part.
“They say it’s too expensive but it costs only $1.29 per resident per year, and there are savings of $55.47 per person, per year,” Calgarians’ for Kids Health president, Juliet Guichon, said. “This is worth it, fluoridation is worth it.”
Although there is fluoride naturally in the Bow and Elbow Rivers in low concentrations between 0.1 and 0.4 milligrams per litre, dental health experts say the positive benefits require a consistent concentration of 0.7 milligrams per litre.
“What fluoride does is strengthens the enamel on developing teeth, but also it remineralizes teeth on a regular basis if it’s run past that surface continually,” Alberta Dental Association and College president, Dr. Bruce Yaholnitsky, said.
According to Dr. Yaholnitsky, there has been a notable increase in tooth decay in children in Calgary since fluoride was removed from drinking water in 2011.
Alberta Health Services (AHS) official stance on water fluoridation supports the practice, calling it a “foundational public health measure to prevent dental disease and improve oral health.”
AHS pointed to research that shows communities with fluoridated water observe 20 per cent to 40 per cent fewer dental caries in comparison to non-fluoridated communities.
While fluoride was nearly re-introduced into the city’s water system back in 2017, the issue received intense push-back from anti-fluoride groups, including the Fluoride Action Network (FAN).
Rick North, a volunteer with FAN who spoke at the city’s fluoride public hearings in 2017, said the use of fluoride should be a choice.
“The main preventative effects of fluoride is topical, not swallowed,” North said. “So this issue of effectiveness is just a very, very weak one.”
The issue of fluoridation has been a debate that dates back to the 1950s in Calgary.
There have been six plebiscites on the issue; in the first four in 1957, 1961, 1966 and 1971 the majority of Calgarians voted against the idea.
However, 53 per cent of Calgarians voted in favour of water fluoridation in 1989, and another 55 per cent voted in favour of continuing the practice when the issue went to the ballot box in 1998.
The report was passed as information on the consent agenda during the Dec. 14 meeting of council.
According to Ward 6 city councillor, Jeff Davison, the purpose of the report was solely to understand the costs and what it would take to re-introduce fluoride into the city’s water system.
“Where council goes with that is to be determined, but the possibility could exist that question might come before Calgarians if a referendum is positioned in the election,” Davison said.
Davison said city councillors still need to get a better understanding of what the province’s position will be on a referendum during the next municipal election. He said the city will then need to develop potential questions to be added to the ballot; work that is expected to begin in February.
Changes to the Municipal Government Act would not require a decision on fluoride to go to a plebiscite, but new provincial legislation allows for matters like this to be put to a plebiscite during the next municipal election.
Calgary goes to the polls to vote for the next council on Oct. 18, 2021.
— With files from Global News’ Adam Toy.