Since 1958 — for upwards of half a century — Lake Cowichan has had fluoride added to their drinking water. However, following the Nov. 19 referendum, fluoridation will stop as soon as January.
Lake Cowichan will now become the final Vancouver Island community to step away from fluoridation.
Put to rest by a resounding 335 ‘no’ to 147 ‘yes,’ it was clear the majority of town’s residents were opposed to fluoridation.
“These numbers are a true reflection of the public’s wishes,” said Mayor Ross Forrest on Nov. 22 at Town Council’s regular meeting.
Town Council must now pass a resolution at their Dec. 20 council meeting to approve the referendum’s results.
Mayor Forrest and councilors, Bob Day, Franklin Hornbrook, Jayne Ingram and Tim McGonigle said they remained neutral on the topic, allowing the public decide what was best.
“We did not try to sway any votes one way or the other. We tried to leave that up to the public,” said Forrest.
Forrest himself didn’t even know which way he was going to vote until it came down to the wire.
“I was torn, I honestly didn’t know which way to vote,” said Forrest.
While Forrest and McGonigle were opposed to water fluoridation and voted against it in the town’s referendum, Day and Hornbrook voted to maintain the status quo.
The motion to put forth a town referendum on fluoridation during the recent municipal elections arose in January 2011 during a public works committee meeting. The motion was proposed by McGonigle.
Forrest noted that fluoridation costs the town roughly $11,000 annually, a cost he thinks is somewhat wasteful. He said that money will now be at the disposal of public works, who will likely use the funds to improve water quality in other ways. Forrest believes this will help make Lake Cowichan a greener place to live, as well.
“We are wasting roughly 97 per cent of it,” said Forrest. Only one per cent or two per cent is actually drinking water or for brushing your teeth. The rest of it is watering our lawns, flushing our toilets — it just doesn’t make sense.”
Forrest also highlighted that this isn’t the first time removing fluoride from the water has become a public issue in Lake Cowichan, citing Town Council’s discussion on the matter roughly a decade ago. However, those deliberations never resulted in a referendum.
“We weren’t the first council to bring it up,” explained Forrest.
Despite Dr. Paul Hasselback also sending a letter to town council, which was published in the Nov. 16 issue of The Gazette, explaining the various benefits fluoridation can have, his expertise on the issue did not sway the vote.
Hasselback argued for fluoride, focusing on dental hygiene as the primary reasons to keep it. Town Council said they had been weary of all the dental associations promoting the use of fluoride but when Hasselback, a local professional and medical health officer vouched for fluoridation, they anticipated the referendum to be much closer in terms of votes.
“Fluoridation of a community’s drinking water is a proven and effective measure to prevent tooth decay for all children and adults in the community,” said Hasselback. “Water Fluoridation is acknowledged across the world as one of the greatest public health achievements, and research had consistently shows the safety and effectiveness of flouroides in the prevention of tooth decay.”
Councilor McGonigle was on the flip-side of the argument and supported the movement to rid Lake Cowichan of fluoride.
“I’ve been adamant of this right from the start,” he said.
McGonigle is under the impression fluoridation is an outdated approach.
“Prior to fluoride being implemented into the water system, fluoride was a good product because there were no other options. Now there’s fluoride in toothpaste and there’s fluoride within your diet. I think you have to take into consideration your total intake of fluoride. If you read your toothpaste label it says ‘do not swallow.’ Fluoride should be applied topically, not ingested,” McGonigle added.
Day, too was cautious with the data he was presented by dental associations.
“I was a little suspect of all the dentists saying ‘keep it in’ but when the chief medical officer chimed in at the last minute I decided I wanted to keep it,” said councillor Day.
It appears Lake Cowichan’s population opposed fluoridation for two primary reasons: they were concerned with the financial burden of the fluoride and/or weren’t totally convinced on the practice’s health benefits; rather they were scared away from it due to fluoride’s relatively unknown side effects. It seems mainly the latter reason is what influenced citizens.
Once the fluoride issue came to the public spotlight, the term “medicated water” surfaced. Town Council agreed that once the term, “medicate” was associated with the fluoridation practice, its popularity began to spiral.
“It scares people away from it,” said Day. “The word ‘medicating the public’ or ‘medication’ was used and that’s a good term because that’s what we’re doing but right away you scare people into voting against it.”
Lake Cowichan resident, Laurie Johnson was one of the 147 individuals that voted to keep the fluoridation of water.
“I was highly against having it removed,” she said.
Johnson, who has three daughters, said her oldest daughter grew up in the Queen Charlotte Islands. Johnson’s other two daughter were raised in the Duncan -area and she said her youngest daughters teeth are in much better shape than her oldest.
Johnson is not only displeased with the referendum results — she’s unhappy the referendum happened in the first place.
“I can’t believe they let a cashier, a truck driver, a homemaker or a baker decide what is best for us. It should be professionals. I understand it has to happen because it got voted in by referendum but I can’t believe we as normal people get to decide something that the medical profession should decide,“ she added.
Williams Lake is another British Columbia community to recently send and vote out fluoridation through referendum.
According to the Health Action Network Society there are now just six communities left in B.C. who continue to use fluoridation, including Prince George, Fort St. John, Prince Rupert, Terrace, Sparwood and Cranbrook.
Out of all of Canadian provinces, B.C. uses the least amount of fluoridated water the Ministry of Environment reports.
40 per cent of Canada still uses fluoridated drinking water.