Southampton will be the first area in the UK to seek the public’s views on adding flouride to their tap water since Health Minister Alan Johnson’s ‘fluoridation for all’ proposal in February.
Health chiefs in the city are to begin consultation next month.
The move is in light of high levels of tooth decay there and coincides with the release of shocking pictures of children’s rotten teeth by the city’s Primary Care Trust (PCT) in a last-ditch attempt to turn around the city’s poor oral health.
However, anti-fluoride campaigners are against the proposal, arguing that excessive fluoride has links with bone cancer and brittle bone disease as well as dental fluorosis that causes discolouring of the teeth and pitting of enamel.
The ‘tooth decay’ photos – taken by local dentists – show the mouths of children whose teeth are filled with blackened stumps of decaying and diseased teeth.
And it’s the alarmingly high number of infants with teeth in this state that are driving moves to add the fluoride.
Figures show that on average, five-year old children from Southampton have more than twice as many teeth affected by decay as those from fluoridated South Birmingham – and around three times more than those from fluoridated South Staffordshire, who have the best dental health in the country.
Efforts by Southampton City PCT to improve dental health via education and other initiatives, such as tooth-brushing schemes, have failed to make an impact.
Dr Andrew Mortimore, Public Health Director for Southampton City Primary Care Trust (PCT) says: ‘We are very pleased that following research into the feasibility and cost of water fluoridation, South Central Strategic Health Authority (SHA) have decided to plan a public consultation the outcome of which could significantly help improve the dental health of local people.
‘Southampton City PCT believes water fluoridation is the most effective way of reducing the large numbers of tooth fillings and extractions currently needed by children in Southampton.’
He adds: ‘Local dental health surveys show that oral health is poor with 42% of the City’s children experiencing dental decay by the age of five.
‘This is clearly unacceptable when dental decay is a preventable disease. Everyone drinking fluoridated water – including children, adults and the elderly – will begin to benefit as soon as fluoridation is started and measurable benefits would be apparent in about five years.’
At present, the natural fluoride level in the city’s water is too low to provide any protection to teeth.
However, if the fluoride is topped up to one part of fluoride per million parts of water, studies suggest that the average child is likely to have two fewer decayed teeth and that about 15% more children would be totally free from tooth decay.
Public consultation on a possible Southampton fluoridation scheme will last for three months.
No decisions will be made by the SHA until there is a thorough independent evaluation of the responses.
In February, Health Secretary Alan Johnson called for fluoride to be added to Britain’s water supplies – backed by the British Dental Association (BDA).
But John Spottiswoode, chair of the pressure group Hampshire Against Fluoridation says: ‘I continue to be amazed at the one-sided way that people like the Health Secretary put the evidence on water fluoridation.
‘He quotes Birmingham as a good example of the effects of fluoridation. Well he actually knows that the best areas for tooth health in the UK are not fluoridated at all, and this situation applies in every country around the world. In fact, non-fluoridated Hampshire is also one of the best areas in England.
He adds: ‘OK, there are always some worse spots in cities, but use education to deal with it, not immoral mass medication with a highly toxic product.’
The government, however, sees fluoridation as an ‘effective and relatively easy way’ to reduce tooth decay among children.
And the BDA adds weight to their proposal, saying that targeted water fluoridation helps fight against tooth decay, especially among poorer children.