Fact file

How fluoride in water can cut tooth decay

Chief medical officer says proposed move could halve hospital admissions among UK children

Water running out of a tap

Millions of Britons are set to have fluoride added to their drinking water following recommendations by the country's chief medical officers [CMOs] aimed at cutting tooth decay.

According to The Times, Health Secretary Sajid Javid is “keen to press ahead” with plans to add the mineral to the water supply. And he will gain powers to do so across England under laws going through Parliament.

Javid tweeted that it is “good to see UK CMOs examining how water fluoridation can improve oral health & prevent tooth decay which disproportionately affects more deprived groups”.

Potential health benefits

An ionised form of the element fluorine, fluoride is a mineral naturally found in low levels in water, which is known to protect teeth.

Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, has cited estimates by Public Health England that adding more of it to water supplies would reduce cavities by 17% among the richest children and 28% among the poorest.

With tooth decay the leading cause of hospitalisation for children aged five to nine, Whitty believes that fluoridation of water would halve admissions.

In a statement to ministers, Whitty and his colleagues emphasised that fluoride is “not a substitute” for brushing teeth regularly but said “there is unquestionably an issue with tooth decay in the UK” and “fluoridation of water can reduce this common problem”.

Critics' concerns

Opposition to fluoridation of water began in the US in 1945. Some opponents have argued that it is immoral to give people a preventive treatment without their consent. Others say governments have no right to tamper with the water supply.

Studies have been conducted to explore whether there is a link between fluoride and cancer. However, none has established a connection and Whitty condemned “exaggerated and unevidenced” claims about health risks and said there is no evidence fluoride causes cancer.

The Guardian noted that the World Health Organization recommends a safe limit of about twice the levels that fluoridation schemes are likely to be set. Fluoride levels in the UK would be “closely monitored”, Whitty and his fellow CMOs said.

World of water

Local councils are responsible for deciding whether to add fluoride to water supplies. However, local authority bosses have little incentive to set up fluoridation schemes as they are not responsible for dental health. Currently in England, only 5.8 million people drink water with fluoride, some of which occurs naturally.

A number of other nations add fluoride to their water supplies, including the US, Brazil, Australia, Canada, Argentina, South Korea and New Zealand. Closer to home, it is also used in Ireland, Poland, Serbia and Spain.

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