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Researcher issues warning to pregnant moms as fluoride returns to Windsor water

Windsor Star logo Windsor Star 2021-12-29 Doug Schmidt
Garry Rossi, vice-president, water operations with Enwin, is pictured in the A.H. Weeks Water Treatment Plant, Tuesday, December 18, 2018. © Provided by Windsor Star Garry Rossi, vice-president, water operations with Enwin, is pictured in the A.H. Weeks Water Treatment Plant, Tuesday, December 18, 2018.

Cavity-fighting fluoride makes its return to local water taps next month after an eight-year hiatus.

But a Canadian researcher who was part of a groundbreaking study into a potential human health downside of fluoridated drinking water is urging pregnant mothers and those feeding infants with formula to avoid using unfiltered tap water if possible.

“At least for the first six months of life, use non-fluoridated water when feasible,” said Dr. Christine Till, a neuropsychologist and associate professor at York University’s faculty of health.

That advice goes against the near-unanimity among dental and public health professionals who recommend the tooth decay-fighting chemical be added to drinking water and that it’s safe. The cost-effective preventative strategy has been touted as one of the top public health achievements of the past century.

And it was that strong message by health experts that helped convince the current Windsor city council in 2018 to reverse a previous council majority’s decision from 2013 that heeded the critics and stopped artificial fluoridation after 51 years. It’s taken three years of testing and municipal water system upgrades — and long delays due in part to COVID-19 — to get to the point where fluoridation makes a return in January to residents and businesses in Windsor, LaSalle and Tecumseh.

 Garry Rossi, vice-president, water operations with Enwin, is pictured in the A.H. Weeks Water Treatment Plant, Tuesday, December 18, 2018. © Dax Melmer Garry Rossi, vice-president, water operations with Enwin, is pictured in the A.H. Weeks Water Treatment Plant, Tuesday, December 18, 2018.

Fluoride is not a requirement for the supply of safe municipal drinking water. Adding it as a tooth decay preventative is “governed by the health authorities,” said Garry Rossi, vice-president of water operations with Enwin Utilities.

After more than four hours of debate at the first meeting of its current term, city council voted 8-3 in December 2018 to resume artificially fluoridating water. Then-acting medical officer of health Dr. Wahid Ahmed presented a Windsor-Essex County Health Unit oral health report pointing to a big jump in serious tooth decay among children in the preceding five-year period without fluoridation. The findings, he said, “should be alarming for our community.”

But Till, who is aware of political debates on the subject in Windsor and elsewhere — Calgary’s city council in November voted to resume fluoridation after a 10-year absence — said the disturbing findings such as hers into fluoride’s potential as a developmental neurotoxin are only beginning to be revealed.

The respected medical journal JAMA Pediatrics published the peer-reviewed study with an unprecedented appended editorial describing the “additional scrutiny” it subjected to the research. It said there was “clearly an association” between consumption of fluoridated municipal drinking water and lowered IQ measurements in the study subjects.

 Water flows from a kitchen faucet in Windsor. © Nick Brancaccio Water flows from a kitchen faucet in Windsor.

Till and others in the scientific community are currently awaiting a final report — expected early in 2022 — by the U.S. National Toxicology Program into the growing body of “high-quality” epidemiological studies pointing to fluoride as a “presumed cognitive developmental hazard to humans.” Preliminary draft findings of that body already support that conclusion.

“It may or may not settle the debate — at the least, however, it will push the conversation forward,” said Till, who describes it as “an extremely important report, looking at all the scientific evidence.” Also awaiting that report is a court case in which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is being sued to lower recommended fluoride levels in municipal drinking water.

Till’s research, which is ongoing, has faced heavy criticism from scientific peers who question her findings, including that fluoride in water disproportionately affects, negatively, the intelligence level of boys. An international group of academics and health officials took the unusual step a year ago of writing to the York University board calling for an arm’s-length review of Till’s work to determine whether “ideology is being misrepresented as science.”

Till stands by her research, which compares subjects in fluoridated Canadian communities to non-fluoridated, and so do her employers. “At no time has there been any finding by York University of research misconduct against you,” York president and vice-chancellor Rhonda Lenton wrote in a Nov. 4 letter to Till.

Till said she follows the science and was just as shocked at what the data of her research revealed — fluoridated drinking water causing measurable harm to the developing brain — as were the editors of JAMA. What makes her work so controversial, she said, is that it questions something that has been seen for many decades as so beneficial for so many. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence — I believe that is what we have,” she said, adding criticism of her research findings is a “completely rational reaction” to emerging science.

“It’s not junk science,” said Fluoride-Free Windsor Essex activist Donna Mayne. If fluoride gets reintroduced next month into Windsor’s drinking water supply as planned, “they damn well better warn parents,” she said.

 Windsor city councillor Rino Bortolin is shown on March 20, 2018 on Maiden Lane in downtown Windsor. © Dan Janisse Windsor city councillor Rino Bortolin is shown on March 20, 2018 on Maiden Lane in downtown Windsor.

City Coun. Rino Bortolin, who moved the 2018 motion supporting resumption of fluoridation, said he and his colleagues rely on the advice and recommendations of the local health unit and the medical community. As with all public health decisions, he said the greater good for the community must be weighed against any potential harm to some.

“The evidence (of fluoridation’s benefit) was clear as presented by the health unit in 2018,” said Bortolin, who is also vice-chairman of the local health board.

Even if research by Till and others is supported in the U.S. National Toxicology Program review, there remains the question of the risk-benefit ratio — is the potential harm to brain development, however slight, outweighed by the proven benefits to dental health? Would lower concentrations of fluoride still benefit oral health while reducing potential neurotoxic harm to the fetus or infant?

Related

Asked for comment, a spokesman for WECHU responded in an email that information on community water fluoridation can be found on its website . “Studies have shown there is no link to negative health outcomes,” the agency statement reads, adding fluoridation is “the single most effective public health measure to prevent tooth decay.”

Bortolin said “the biggest impact” of fluoridation is on the oral health of children from lower-income families who can least afford visits to the dentist or fluoride treatments. He said he’s “open to conversation” including the possibility of subsidizing water filtration systems for poorer households that might need them.

Rossi said installing the necessary equipment to reintroduce fluoridation came “well within” the approved budget of $850,000. He said the annual cost of adding a “high-purity product” from Fluorspar will be about $150,000.

dschmidt@postmedia.com

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