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Should we force fluoride?

By Emily McAuliffe - posted Thursday, 18 April 2013

Late last year, the Queensland Government made legislative changes to give local councils control over water fluoridation in their communities. Not surprisingly, this triggered fresh debate about whether fluoride should be forced upon people, being a long-standing topic of deliberation.

At the time the legislation was passed, almost 90% of Queenslanders had fluoride added to their local water supply. Over the past few months however, some councils have decided to stop fluoridation of their water, largely due to the suspected toxicity of fluoride and the subsequent weight of community or political pressure.

It turns out that once it's in though, it's a costly exercise to remove it. So the enormous costs involved are no doubt clouding the decision-making process of some councils. But of course the anti-fluoride protesters are firing up, saying you can't put a price on health. And maybe they're right.


Fluoridation is the perfect example of an ethical dilemma, as there are convincing advocates for and against. How do we know who to believe? How does the government know who to believe?

Dentists will applaud fluoridation while other health authorities might rebuke the idea, and anti-fluoride activists will bandy around words like 'skull' and 'crossbones' to scare the daylights out of us. There doesn't appear to be even a shadow of consensus.

So given the absence of conclusive evidence, should the government take the liberty of making a decision for us?

Of course this isn't a new dilemma, as many towns and cities across the world choose to fluoridate their water supply or otherwise, but it is a serious one nonetheless. In some cases I believe it is appropriate for governments to step in with interventions to address public health issues, but when it comes to fluoridation, it's an example of government policy quite literally being forced down our throats.

We often hear about fluoride benefits from dentists, but let's face it, the training of these people doesn't go far beyond the mouth. How well informed are they about the effects of ingestion?

If we drink eight glasses of fluoridated water each day, we sure are self-medicating a heck of a lot. And worse still, we're medicating with something we probably have not consented to take and don't know much about. It's not just the stomping ground of the tooth fairy.


So before we blindly march along with the majority or surrender to people of influence, maybe we should consider whether we're given a holistic picture of the benefits and risks of fluoride on our entire body and our entire population. Do we have sufficient information to develop an informed opinion? If we don't, should we really guzzle down a chemical most of us don't understand?

Furthermore, as a public health measure, fluoridation has long been accepted as an intervention primarily aimed at children. In a new breakthrough however, a University of Adelaide study claims to show for the first time that fluoride can also prevent tooth decay in adults. So it appears whole populations have been made to drink this stuff for years without anyone actually knowing if it benefited the majority. Is this health policy gone mad?

We wouldn't make everyone wear nicotine patches to help a select few quit smoking, or make regular counselling mandatory for everyone because some suffer from depression. So why force entire cities to drink fluoride without convincing evidence to suggest it benefits the bulk of society?

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About the Author

Emily McAuliffe is a freelance writer in Brisbane who is completing a Master of Public Health.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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