Tom Flanagan is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Calgary and chair of the aboriginal futures research program at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
In 2011, Calgary council voted 10-3 to discontinue fluoridation of the city's water, which had begun 20 years earlier pursuant to a referendum. Now the consequences are becoming visible. A study by Alberta medical researchers shows that the incidence of cavities in children's primary teeth is rising more quickly in Calgary than in Edmonton, which has continued with fluoridation.
Maybe the 2011 decision can be reversed. One councillor, who voted against fluoridation then, said she was impressed by the new evidence and planned to consult provincial health authorities. High time. Council refused to consult any researchers in 2011, even though three professors from the University of Calgary medical school offered to help interpret the scientific evidence.
Another positive sign is that the city's largest newspaper, the Calgary Herald, has come out cautiously in favour of a review. In 2011, the paper (under different management) adopted a know-nothing stance, dismissing the medical researchers' offer of assistance as "a predictable reaffirmation of the benefits of fluoridation from the scientific establishment."
It's also good news that Mayor Naheed Nenshi has come out in favour of re-fluoridation. His great popularity with voters could very helpful in getting city council to reverse itself, or perhaps encouraging voters to launch a petition for another referendum.
Calgary is the largest, but certainly not the only, Canadian city to discontinue fluoridation. Dozens have gone off fluoride in recent years, including Quebec City, Windsor, Waterloo, Ont., and Thunder Bay. The movement is likely to continue because the anti-fluoride movement has been growing as its composition has changed.
When fluoridation began, opponents were typically on the far right politically (often members of the John Birch Society). Film director Stanley Kubrick parodied them in his 1964 movie Dr. Strangelove, in which Brigadier-General Jack D. Ripper tells Mandrake (played by the immortal Peter Sellers), "Fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous Communist plot we have ever had to face."
That type of opposition is still out there, although today it assumes an ultra-libertarian rather than anti-communist guise. But it is now outweighed in importance by the environmentalist left, as symbolized by the Green Party's opposition to the fluoridation of water. (One wonders how many Greens know that on this issue, they are the intellectual heirs of the John Birch Society?)
Opposition to fluoridation does not stand by itself. It is part of the repertoire of the technophobic, chemophobic left, along with hostility to vaccination and genetically modified foods, and attraction to homeopathy, naturopathy and other forms of alternative medicine.
A current online CBC poll shows most respondents believe that fluoridation is unsafe, but the CBC has a special audience. General polling in the United States and elsewhere has usually shown majorities willing to accept fluoridated water, but supporters are not nearly as intense about the issue as the opponents. An intense minority can overawe a small decision-making body, and that is what is happening in Canada, as the anti-fluoridation movement picks off city councils one by one.
The good news for most parents is that alternatives to fluoridated water exist, such as fluoridated salt, regular brushing with fluoride toothpaste and frequent topical application of fluoride by dentists. The most damage from removal of fluoride from municipal water supplies will be done to the children of the poor, especially among First Nations and recent immigrants from impoverished countries. Brig.-Gen. Ripper would be proud.
Eds Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Mayor Naheed Nenshi was away from Calgary for the final vote on fluoridation. In fact, while Mr. Nenshi was away for the first vote on the issue in 2011, he was there for the final two votes that ratified the decision. He voted against the removal of fluoride in both cases.