Where I live we are lucky to have our own supply of water that comes from a mountain spring. We have a wealth of water in ireland, and we often forget just how lucky we are. However questions on the topic of the mandatory fluoridation of our public water supply have raised a spectre of suspicion and fear over the health qualities and ethics of water supply in Ireland. Since the article in the January issue of this magazine The Great Fluoride Debate has really started to hot up in the Irish media - it is raging on FaceBook (look up the sites at the end of this article), in the print media and on radio and even RTE television. Instinctively I am on the anti-fluoride side of the debate, but it can be hard to follow or make sense of what is being said because of the wealth of conflicting information.
I’m not an epidemiologist, a dentist or a public health expert, but the questions I keep coming back to as a mother are these:
1. Why does Ireland continue to stick rigidly to a 50 year old policy to mass medicate its population without their permission? If anyone tried this as a new initiative now there would be uproar - everyone would be furious over the ‘Big Brother’ approach to healthcare.
2. Why hasn’t Ireland followed the lead of the other European countries who have discontinued the practice of drinking water fluoridation and allow citizens make informed choices about the use of fluoride in toothpaste, particularly as we now know that topical application via toothpaste is more effective?
3. Ireland has one of the lowest levels of breastfeeding in Europe. So given the high prevalence of formula given to babies (constituted using tap water in general) shouldn’t we be concerned about the fact that these tiny babies are getting a massive dose of fluoride, as they are getting the same “dose” as an adult?
The anti-fluoride campaign today is being led by the vibrant Aisling Fitzgibbon, (AKA The Girl Against Fluoride), who has promised to take a case against the Government and is busy raising awareness around Ireland of the issues around fluoridation, and by Declan Waugh, the environmental scientist who was interviewed 2 months ago for this magazine and gave a talk in Fionnuisce in Bandon. You might be forgiven for thinking this is a recent campaign, as the press generated recently by Aisling Fitzgibbon is a hot topic with lots of coverage centered on FaceBook and Hot Press. She is a young and outrageous campaigner with lots of energy and a knack for marketing - think stripping down to pink underwear on Mother’s Day in front of a Garda! Interestingly though, the anti-fluoridation campaign is actually as old as the practice of adding fluoride to Irish water supplies. In the early 1960s a case was taken against the then Government by Gladys Ryan and others who argued that their constitutional rights to bodily integrity would be undermined if the Government pursued the policy of fluoridation. They presented a number of international experts who argued that fluoride was not a safe chemical to add to drinking water, and that it would cause more health problems than it solved. At the time they lost due to a technicality because the judge ruled that she had the choice of using the water pumps on her street which were not fluoridated. These days those pumps are no longer in service so the majority of Irish people no longer have that choice (unless they want to either buy an expensive filtration system or bottled water).
Fast forward over 50 years and the health issues that concerned Gladys Ryan and her friends still concern people today. If you read about the fluoride debate you see there are strong concerns about research linking fluoride and cancer, heart disease, gastrointestinal problems, neurological disease, reduced IQ in children, bone disease, and much more. Declan Waugh said recently:
‘’When you study the risks presented by fluoride exposure and then see the truth that your people are much, much sicker, and have much higher disease mortality rates that your non-fluoridated neighbours you have to ask again: why exactly – unbeknownst to a large percentage of the population, and against the will of many others – are we still being dosed with this stuff on a daily basis, not only in the water directly from our taps, but in our tea, our soup, our bread, our pints? (Hot Press)
But then if you talk to most dentists you will hear the argument in favour of fluoridation: they believe it is effective in preventing tooth decay and it is completely safe so why not carry on adding it to water. But I want to know, since there are all these possible health concerns, why are we taking the risk? I know teeth are important but I would prefer to safeguard the rest of my body (and my children's bodies) as well!
Another key point is that adding medicine to public drinking water is not an effective way of giving people that medicine, as is pointed out by a leading U.S. medical academic, Daniel M. Merfeld (a Professor of Otology and Laryngology at Harvard Medical School) who is the latest influential medical professional to openly oppose fluoridation. Having looked at all the evidence in great detail, Professor Merfeld confirms the view of fluoridation as "mass medication" and outlines why he opposes mandatory fluoridation:
‘’When water is fluoridated, the dose is uncontrolled as the amount ingested varies with water intake. Can you imagine your health care professional telling you to just put your prescription drugs in your water, ingest the drugged water when you are thirsty, and go ahead and share your drugged water with others? Of course not! In fact, most European countries do not fluoridate their water, because such mass medication is considered ineffective and unethical."
For me, that really sums up the argument against mandatory fluoridation. I think that in some ways the questions of whether fluoride is or isn’t safe, or effective in preventing tooth decay, or is or is not harmful, is slightly beside the point. Putting it in public water supplies is not ethical, and it’s not effective. A phrase that comes up over and over in this debate is The Precautionary Principle - if in doubt, play it safe. Most other European countries have chosen to follow that principle in the case of water fluoridation. I really hope that The Girl Against Fluoride is successful in taking her case to the Irish Courts in 2013, and I hope that she will be heard, rather than stone-walled, and all our questions will be answered, and we will be able to trust our water once again.
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