Feb 17,1992

During the four decades in which civic battles have raged periodically over whether or not to compel citizens to drink fluoride, the local public health establishment invariably strikes a certain stance. It presents as fact the theory that fluoridated water is a healthy and socially desirable builder of stronger teeth and bones, and dismisses all opponents as unscientific quacks, religious zealots, right-wing extremists, uninformed neurotics and even racists. In most Alberta cities fluoride's proponents carried the day years ago. Calgary, however, is a different matter. After losing four earlier plebiscites, the city health bureaucracy finally but narrowly won a fluoride campaign in 1989. But the battle, it turns out, is far from over. Next week, city council will decide whether to hold another vote, even though the city since last August has been adding fluoride, along with unavoidable quantities of arsenic, lead, cadmium, mercury, chromium and assorted other minerals, to Calgary's drinking water.

Notwithstanding the health establishment's scorn, the so-called quacks are steadily gaining credibility. Research questioning the value of fluoride and pointing out its possible harm continues to surface. And a chemical breakdown of the fluoride being dumped in Calgary's water (and in all the other fluoridating jurisdictions in Albertain total, comprising 80% of the population) shows the presence of other unsavoury elements. The additive is actually an acidic yellow chemical soup which is only 24% fluoride; it's a by-product of Cominco's fertilizer manufacturing plant in Trail, B.C.

Calgary's latest fluoridation battle started with a letter. Over four years ago, Grade 11 students in the non-academic Science 25 course at Calgary's John G. Diefenbaker Senior High, after experimenting on egg shells, wrote their city council asking for a plebiscite on water fluoridation. The students had studied dental health as part of their course. They conducted a school-wide plebiscite, and found 93% supported fluoridation.

Among the students' informational materials was a propaganda pamphlet from the provincially funded, municipally operated Calgary Heath Services board. It analyzed the motives of fluoride's opponents. Some, explained the CHS, see themselves "as saviours to their fellow men." They are motivated by "distrust of government." They feel their "psychic wholeness" is threatened, and are defensive about "any foreign body," whether it be fluoridation or "interracial contact." Most opponents, the document concluded indulgently, are simply "confused."

Having reviewed all such literature available to them, the Grade 11 s confidently proclaimed to city council, "We have researched and found the last plebiscite in 1971 is not relevant for the people in Calgary today," although they did not really explain why they thought so. The students believed another vote would "express the real and valid opinions of the population in the city." Though Calgarians had already rejected fluoridation in four plebiscites held in the previous three decades, the council decided by a 12-2 margin to take the high schoolers advice and put the issue to the voters again in the October 1989 city election.

A vigorous $50,000 campaign launched by the provicially funded Calgary Health Services argued the pro-fluoride case in TV, radio and newspaper ads. Glossy pamphlets described fluoride as an "essential nutrient" that would "benefit everyone." The officials pointed to other fluoridefriendly communities: Edmonton (since 1967), Lethbridge, Red Deer, Fort McMurray, Grande Prairie and Drumheller. Only Medicine Hat still resists. Outside Alberta, the cities of Toronto, Winnipeg, Halifax and Ottawa also fluoridate their drinking water. (Vancouver and Montreal have steadfastly refused. Only 10% of British Columbians are fluoridated.)

This time voters were swayed, but only barely: 53% supported the initiative. The city started fluoride treatment last August after spending $1.4 million designing and constructing special facilities and $329,731.20 securing a supply to last through December 1992.

Dismayed but not defeated, the anti-fluoridation camp kept fighting, however. A citizens' group, Health Action Net Society (HANS), gathered 48,000 names on a petition calling for another plebiscite, and 33,000 names calling for a public hear-ings. They presented the petition to council last October, two years after their defeat in 1989.

Concerned citizen Jack Locke took the issue to court. He sued the city in November 1989 for over one million dollars in punitive damages, claiming that the municipal government violated his Charter right to "security of the person." The city countered that Mr. Locke isn't forced to drink the water. He can buy bottled water. There has been no settlement. The court denied his request for an injunction to stop the city from starting fluoridation last summer.

After the petition arrived, the council decided to reconsider. In December they voted 9-6 (Mayor Al Duerr voting with the pro-fluoride faction) to hold another plebiscite in the October 1992 city election. But legal wrangling cast a shadow on the decision. Provincial law may require that the council first rescind the bylaw ordering fluoridation before holding another plebiscite. Some of the pro-plebiscite aldermen do not want to rescind the bylaw until the voters cast a negative ballot. The city's law department reports back to council on February 24, when a final decision on a new plebiscite will be made.

At that meeting anti-fluoride activists plan to question what is actually going into Calgary's water supply. The answer may not reassure them. The additive is not simply fluoride, but hydrofluosilicic acid from Cominco Fertilizer. Phosphate rock contains fluorine. There is .32 mg/L of naturally occurring flourine in the water at the Glenbow water plant on the Elbow River, and .17 mg/L at the Bearspaw plant on the Bow. (The Elbow River contains more groundwater than the Bow and picks up more fluorine from underlying phosphate rock.) By artificially fluoridating the water the amount of flourine goes up to 1 mg/L. And hydrofluosilicic acid is used to do that.

In preparing phosphate fertilizer, the fluorine is released as a gas, silicon tetrafluoride, which becomes hydrofluosilicic acid when the gas is passed through water scrubbers. This liquid waste by-product is then transported from Cominco in Trail, B.C., suppliers to the northwest U.S. and western Canada, to Calgary's two water plants in specially lined tank trucks. The yellowish acid will eat through metal. At one Calgary plant, an unlined pipe injecting the acid into the water supply rotted after two weeks. The acid

is stored in a wooden vat lined with a huge acid-resistant baggie. (According to one technical expert, anybody who fell into the big wooden vat would rapidly dissolve into a light film floating on the top.) As needed, the acid moves to a smaller container where it goes into the water after chlorination (to kill bacteria, which fluoridation doesn't do).

Calgary will use 662 tons of hydrofluosilicic acid a year, yet few know what's in it. About 24% of the acidic soup is fluoride. When questioned last week about the rest, waterworks senior production design engineer Gary Lamb stated it contained water and "other substances." The city's concern, said Mr. Lamb, is that there be fluoride in the acid. Whatever else might be in it does not matter. "If they made it out of smoke and mirrors, it would be fine with us."

In fact the rest, according to Cominco's own analysis, contains 57 mg/L of arsenic, 3 mg/L of lead, and smaller traces of mercury, chromium and cadmium. However, Mr. Lamb assures the public that everything is kept to a safe level.

Health officials first put flouride into water at Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1945 as part of a 10-year experiment to test whether a higher flouride concentration in drinking water prevented tooth decay. Even before the experiment concluded the American Public Health Service, buoyed by encouraging early results on tooth decay and pressure from public health advocates, endorsed fluoride in 1950. Since then half of North American communities have fluoridated their water supplies. Fluoride proponents say that it is successful in dental health because tooth decay is becoming less common. Sceptics argue that decay is declining because people brush their teeth more frequently and eat less sugar.

The vast majority of European countries are more circumspect about fluoride use than Alberta. In 1976 the Dutch govern-ment removed the right of the state to add fluoride to public water. The Danish envi-ronment ministry in 1977 recommended no fluoridation because no adequate stud-ies had been carried out on its long- term effects. Sweden concurred in 1981.

The German Association of Gas and Water Experts went further. "The so-called optimal fluoride concentration of 1 mg per litre [as in Calgary] is close to the dose at which long-term damage to the human body is to be expected." Even Canada's own National Research Council found in 1977 that "Long-term injestion, with accu-mulation of fluoride in animals and man, induces metabolic and biochemical changes, the significance of which has not been fully assessed." At present Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Japan have all discontinued fluoridating public water supplies.

Concerns have also been raised in recent research about flouride's effects on the discol-oration of teeth in chil-dren through dental flu-orosis. Dental fluorosis in its milder form appears as white specks or chalky white areas. In more advanced stages the stains become yel-low-brown and eventu-ally teeth become brit-tle.

More than half of the fluoride that a per-son ingests remains in the bones through-out life. Skeletal fluorosis (too much flu-oride in the bones) creates pain in the joints, higher incidence of hip fractures because of bone fragility, and osteoporo-sis. Other researchers have found that some people suffer allergic reactions: skin rashes and stomach upsets.

Still the North American health estab-lishment remains committed. In February 1991, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that fluoridated water helps prevent tooth decay, does not pose a "detectable health risk," and in par-ticular does not cause cancer, as some have alleged.

Other scientists claim that government authorities are simply covering up. Robert Carton and Robert Marcus, two U.S. Environmental Protection Agency toxi-cologists, recently alleged that the U.S. national toxicology program deliberately downplayed the results of experiments showing possible links of fluoride and cancer. (Dr. Marcus has since been dis-missed by the EPA.) Dr. Carton has argued that "water fluoridation is the biggest mistake that was ever made."

Two scientists who once supported flu-oridation now agree. John Colquhoun, former principal dental officer for Auckland, New Zealand's health depart-ment, found in August 1991 that fluori-dation created higher rates of dental fluo-rosis and bone fractures. He claims that the benefits have been greatly exaggerated and the demerits of flouride deliberately

In a January 22 letter to B.C.'s health minister, Richard Foulkes, Abbotsford doctor and author of a 1973 governmentsponsored report endorsing fluoridation, agrees. Dr. Foulkes concluded from a review of the available research that fluoridation "can no longer be held to be safe or effective in the reduction of tooth decay." He further claimed that "it is no longer ethical to state that fluoride in the water supply is effective for the purpose claimed." His recommendation: "Fluoridation of community water should be discontinued."

Not so, says Calgary health officer Brent Friesen. Dr. Friesen still sees fluoridation as "an extremely important public health measure. Without it, there would be more dental disease
unnecessarily occurring." Insists Dr. Friesen; "There is no debate within the agencies mandated to deal with public health."

And there need not be any debate in the public arena, according to city design engineer Lamb. "Why should Calgary hold a debate on this? Do you really expect scientific experts to debate a housewife in Calgary?"

Mr. Lamb is speaking of HANS' Alberta president Elke Babiuk. From her home in suburban northeast Calgary she tirelessly coordinates the city-wide campaign to stop fluoridation of the city's water supply. On top of the health risks involved, Mrs. Babiuk sees the issue as one of freedom of choice. "It's not up to my neighbours or the Calgary Health Services to decide for my children. As a mother, I should be the final authority on medication." She does not buy fluoridated toothpaste but acknowledges that "if people want to go to the drugstore to get fluoride that's their business."

Mrs. Babiuk has plenty of allies. Dentist Conrad Sonntag from unfluoridated Medicine Hat thinks Calgary's decision "amounts to mass medication to contest a disease which is neither life threatening nor grossly debilitating. I'd rather not see any more chemicals in the water.
We're treating this [dental decay] problem much like trying to kill a fly with a shotgun."

Veteran city politician Alderman Sue Higgins opposes fluoridation "not because it's poison or cancer causing but because I have the right to refuse fluoride medication. Unfortunately the health types are literally going to shove this treatment down my throat. Their attitude is that I'll have good teeth whether I like it or not."

Ald. Higgins wonders where it will stop. "The city has a monopoly on the water. What will they decide to force-feed me next-Vitamin C? Milk? It's none of their business." She also resents the reaction of health bureaucrats when confronted by criticism. "To them, we're just the uneducated, illiterate rabble. They're tyrants. They are as fanatical and as opposed to reason as they accuse the anti-fluoridationists of being."

-Rick Bell