Precautionary Principle: the principle that the introduction of a new product or process whose ultimate effects are disputed or unknown should be resisted. It has mainly been used to prohibit the importation of genetically modified organisms and food. (Google dictionary)
Readers who keep abreast of news around the province probably heard about three erstwhile Calgary city councilors who last week championed a certain scientific paper that encouraged the city to re-open the debate on fluoridation of the municipality’s drinking water.
In 2001 Calgary council voted to remove fluoride from the city’s drinking water, vindicating the opinions of contrarians, Dr. Phil disciples and followers of the precautionary principle while ignoring filing cabinets full of scientific evidence. On Sept. 14, the city declined in a 9-5 vote to re-open the fluoridation debate. That’s their choice, despite the fact a study this year suggested children in Calgary had developed more tooth problems since 2011. Go figure.
But the application of the precautionary principle to the fluoride debate is misleading if not downright intellectually dishonest. To suggest fluoride should be left out of water until science can determine if it’s safe or not is erroneous reasoning. Science determined about 70 years ago that fluoride was safe.
Around 1900 a dentist in Colorado, Dr. Frederick McKay, was curious about why so many of his youthful patients experienced pitting in their teeth. He investigated the issue in a scientific way and by doing so discovered that drinking water in his area had a naturally occurring high level of fluoride. He also discovered that a smaller level of fluoride actually strengthened and aided teeth, and this discovery was soon backed up by scientists in over a dozen other nations.
Immediately after World War II the American government began to study the effects of fluoride on teeth. By 1950 they had discovered that, through scientific trials, an amount of fluoride equal to one part per million in drinking water reduced children’s cavities by 50 per cent. For working families that don’t have a lot of money to buy toothpaste, brushes and floss, that fluoridation came in pretty handy.
So why has fluoridation gotten such a bad rap lately? Well, it began about 70 years ago. There have been contrarians opposing fluoridation right from the beginning, basic believers in the precautionary principle. This despite the fact multiple scientific studies in different nations proved the same point: fluoride in drinking water tended to reduce cavities in kids’ teeth.
Okay, so question number 2: Why would contrarians oppose fluoridation? Well, the same reason some people oppose vaccinating children and the same reason why university-trained physicians have warned against cell phone use as causing brain cancer. There’s a certain fringe element who feel that anything that is proposed by government, or implemented by government, must be some insidious, evil plan to destroy our lives. Their usual avenue of protest is the statement, “It’s not 100 per cent safe, so let’s forget about it.”
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that many things that improve most lives may in fact have a negative effect on a few people. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy are two good examples. Many patients benefit from them; some patients don’t.
Another example is the recently discredited anti-vaccination movement. These contrarians managed to convince a lot of people that vaccinations actually harm children. There was no scientific evidence to prove that claim, and in fact truckloads of evidence to prove vaccinations help the vast majority. But no vaccine is 100 per cent effective for every person.
I personally couldn’t care less if Calgarians don’t have fluoride in their drinking water; their elected officials made that decision and must justify that. Do I care about a minor bit of fluoride in water that will help kids’ teeth stay healthy and strong?
Not at all.
Stu Salkeld is the editor of The Pipestone Flyer and writes a regular column for the paper.