An old debate reignites as city council fights for a healthier community

City | Paul Dechene | July 29, 2021

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to Henry Baker Hall, a motion to consider community water fluoridation has been added to the agenda for the Aug. 11 council meeting.

It’s a safe bet this will be another very lengthy meeting with a long list of very passionate delegations. Fluoridation is as controversial today as it was in the 1950s when communities across North America were first instituting it.

The main mover of the community water fluoridation motion is Ward 2’s Councillor Bob Hawkins, but it has been signed by every member of council and Mayor Sandra Masters as well. The motion skips the whole “let’s write a report about this” step and, if it passes, will go straight to directing administration to adopt a fluoridation program like the one in Moose Jaw.

This will be fifth time in Regina’s history that it has tackled the fluoridation question. The four previous instances — in 1954, 1958, 1965 and 1985 — ended in referendums the anti-fluoridation side handily won.*

With Regina having passed on fluoridation so many times already, one has to wonder why council wants to take it on again.

The Buffalo Pound Water Treatment Plant Renewal Project is doubtless one factor. That project has recently been awarded to Graham Infrastructure Inc. and AECON Water Infrastructure Inc. As there are already plans to include a modern, automated fluoridation system for Moose Jaw in the renewed facility, this is a convenient time to incorporate fluoridation on Regina’s side.

According to the motion, the city estimates a community water fluoridation system will cost $2 million in up-front equipment purchases. Supplying fluoride will cost $210,000 a year.

Hawkins says by e-mail that a key motivation for him was his experience of having lived in communities with fluoridation programs.

“I have seen the elimination of cavities in my children compared to what people of my generation experienced,” says Hawkins.

As for why this particular moment?

“The timing just appeared right,” says Hawkins. “We have a new council which has set community health as one of its major priorities. I was pleased when council adopted my motion to establish the wellness committee and with the work that that committee has done under Councillor Stevens. Fluoridation is all about community wellness.”

The data supporting community water fluoridation has only gotten stronger over time. When we first wrote about this in Prairie Dog (“Tooth Of The Matter”, June 2, 2011), Calgary had just voted to scrap their community water fluoridation program. Since then, a 2016 study out of the University of Calgary compared Cowtown after ending its fluoridation program to Edmonton, where fluoridation continues. The study found that while there was an increase in cavities among children in both cities, the cavity rate was increasing significantly faster in fluoridated-free Calgary.

Here at home, while there hasn’t been a comprehensive study comparing Regina to Saskatoon like the one comparing Calgary and Edmonton, research has shown that cavity rates among children are higher here than in Saskatoon where they fluoridate their drinking water.

One element that most public health organizations agree upon is that community water fluoridation provides the best protection to vulnerable communities that do not have regular access to professional dental care. Those of us who have dental plans may not notice the benefits of water fluoridation because it is just one dental health measure among many protecting us. However, lower-income families who have to pay out-of-pocket for dental care may end up skipping annual check-ups and cleanings. For them, water fluoridation is crucial in not only limiting the number cavities children get but it also reduces the severity of the cavities they suffer from.

After a year and a half of living with a global pandemic which is only now being driven into retreat by vaccination science, one would hope people will look more favourably at public health measures like water fluoridation.

But during the Plague Time, we have also seen a disturbing rise in anti-science and anti-government sentiment among a very loud subset of the community. And there are many on the environmental left who don’t trust anything that would be colloquially described as a “chemical”, regardless of how beneficial that chemical might be to vulnerable communities.

As this community water fluoridation motion heads to council on Aug. 11, will we see an unholy alliance between the anti-communist “hands off my precious bodily fluids” right and the hippy “if I can’t pronounce it, it must be poison” left?

Hopefully, after all we’ve been through, the mantra of “listen to the science” will carry the day in Regina.

* In 1954, fluoridation failed with 7,543 yes votes and 11,132 against. In 1958, fluoridation failed with 11,941 votes for and 12, 566 against. In 1965, fluoridation got 12,218 votes with 16,801 against. And in 1985, fluoridation failed with 25,631 votes for and 31,526 against.