PLANS to add fluoride to Scotland’s drinking water seem certain to be scrapped after they sparked a massive backlash from the public.
More than 7,500 Scots have complained in writing to the Scottish Executive about the plans for compulsory fluoridation, making it the biggest such protest since the Section 28 debate.
Ministers and leading health groups claim the policy - which was revealed by Scotland on Sunday - may be the best way of improving the country’s dental health record, which ranks among the worst in Europe.
But it is clear from the results of a consultation exercise on the Executive’s oral health strategy that more than 80% of Scots who took part fear it could cause severe side effects for children.
The reaction follows research which linked the chemical to cancer, brittle bones and Alzheimer’s Disease and evidence that fluoridation of the public water supply in parts of England has caused unsightly mottling of teeth.
In a sign that officials are losing patience with the public over the issue, a draft copy of a letter on behalf of health minister Malcolm Chisholm contains a handwritten note suggesting one objector should be told politely to "bugger off".
The Executive denied Chisholm had penned the note which they said was "a misguided attempt at humour" by a junior official in the minister’s department.
Ministers insist they remain "neutral" on the proposal and a spokesman for the Executive said it was pleased so many members of the public took part in the consultation process. But sources close to the Executive admitted last night that it is difficult to see how Jack McConnell can square the proposal with his new promise to be a listening First Minister.
"There is merit in the idea but whether it is a practical one in the circumstances has got to be in some doubt," said one insider. Labour’s Lib Dem coalition partners are also sceptical.
It seems more likely ministers will later this year plump for the less controversial option for handing out more free toothpaste and toothbrushes for schoolchildren and a dental hygiene campaign in all schools as an alternative to water fluoridation.
The Executive is also exploring whether fluoride could be added to milk given to young children in schools and nurseries, a practice which already exists in parts of England. In light of what it calls "political challenges" over fluoridation, that is an option backed by the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh.
A total of 1,000 Scots sent postcards opposing fluoridation and about 6,500 signed petitions against the move to mass medication. A further 1,500 written responses, many hostile, came from individuals and organisations.
The response from Dawn Smith, a Linlithgow mother whose two teenage children suffer from fluorosis or mottling after being given fluoride tablets at an early age is typical.
Smith, who sent in photos of her daughter Karina’s damaged teeth, agreed her child should take tablets on her dentist’s advice then her permanent teeth came through looking "brown, indented and an absolute mess".
Karina, who is now 17, still suffers from sensitive teeth and her fluorosis has made orthodontic work complicated. Smith said: "I would be prepared to go to court over this because I see it as an infringement of a basic human right. The water wouldn’t be safe for Karina if they added fluoride to it. How can you assess what is safe for the entire population given that children like my daughter with sever fluorosis are not in same category as other people?"
Campaigners against fluoridation also point to extensive international research linking it to a wide range of diseases and ailments.
French research has claimed those living in fluoridated areas suffer 86% more fractures than in non-fluoridated parts as a result of brittle bones, while research in New Jersey has reported a higher risk of bone cancer. Other studies have linked fluoride to chronic fatigue and a heightened risk of Alzheimer’s Disease.
Concerns about mottled teeth and bone damage recently led the health minister in the Republic of Ireland, where 73% of drinking water is fluoridated, to recommend a cut in the level of the chemical in the public water supply.
Nonetheless, some leading health experts including NHS officials, the British Dental Association and the British Medical Association, say fluoridation is required to counter Scots’ passion for sugary drinks and poor toothbrushing habits, which they say has left more than half of all five-year-olds with rotten teeth.
In the nation’s most deprived areas the picture is even worse, with 60% of children suffering from dental disease by the age of three.
Across Scotland each year, more than a quarter of a million teeth are extracted from children. It is the biggest reason for children being given general anaesthetic in hospital. Five children have died in the UK since 1996 while undergoing these operations while others have been left with brain damage or other long-term disabilities.
Supporters of fluoridation also point out that 70% of five-year-olds are decay free in the Netherlands and Denmark where water is fluoridated.
The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh suggests schools should phase out fizzy drinks and wants manufacturers of sugary snacks to consider incorporating a health warning on their wrappers.
But in its submission it "strongly recommends" water fluoridation "as a safe measure and the most effective means on a community basis of reducing caries levels".