The debate to add fluoride to the city’s drinking water isn’t new for Calgarians but has remained contentious since it was first voted on nearly 70 years ago.
Calgary’s civic election is Oct. 18.
This will be the seventh time fluoride has been on the ballot in a Calgary municipal election, after being rejected four times between 1957 and 1971, and then approved in 1989 and again in 1998.
It was after a lengthy debate and public hearing that city council decided to remove fluoride in 2011.
In February 2021, city council voted 10-4 in favour of a plebiscite asking voters whether they think fluoride should be reintroduced into the drinking water, with councillors Ward Sutherland, Shane Keating, Evan Woolley and Druh Farrell opposed.
“What I’m hoping we’ll get is a very fact-based conversation,” Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said at the time. “I want people on all sides to come out and inform folks, and hopefully, we’ll have a clear direction one way or the other.”
The question on this year’s ballot reads: “Are you in favour of reintroducing fluoridation of the municipal water supply? Yes or no.”
During advance polls, there were concerns about people missing the fluoride question on the ballot, which can be found at the bottom — below the sections for mayor, councillor and school board trustee.
According to the Alberta Dental Association and College, there are between 0.1 and 0.4 parts per million of fluoride naturally in drinking water.
If fluoride is reintroduced into the water system, it would be regulated at 0.7 parts per million at an estimated cost of $30 million over the next 20 years.
City administration said those capital costs could be absorbed by the water utility, which wouldn’t require an increase in water rates.
“There are almost 80 years of clinical history showing the benefits of fluoridation in community water systems throughout North America. It’s quite overwhelming actually,” former ADAC president Dr. Bruce Yaholnitsky said.
“The optimal amount is 0.7 parts per million, so at different times of the year, there would be a different amount added.”
With one week before election day, campaigns on both sides of the issue have advocated their stance on fluoride with lawn signs and mailed flyers.
Fluoride Yes! is campaigning to have fluoride reintroduced into the water supply. The group is managed by University of Calgary law and ethics professor Juliet Guichon, with a board that includes doctors, dentists, lawyers and engineers.
The group said it is concerned about the impacts on children’s dental health following the removal of fluoride a decade ago.
“(Fluoride) a significant public health benefit,” Guichon told Global News. “It helps prevent dental decay to a large degree and can really help Calgarians.”
On the other side of the debate is Safe Water Calgary, a group that has campaigned on keeping fluoride out of the water system. The group is run by Dr. Robert Dickson, who has been publicly opposed to fluoride prior to council’s 2011 decision. The group also includes a dentist, therapists and psychologists concerned with the lack of choice.
“Not a single body function requires fluoride,” Dickson told Global News. “We should not be mandating it for anybody. We should be giving people the choice whether they want to consume it or not.”
Several other groups have launched pro-fluoride campaigns, including Alberta Health Services and ADAC.
Last month, a student-run advocacy group at the University of Calgary called Fluoride: Pay it Forward urged students to vote in favour of the reintroduction of fluoride.
A ThinkHQ poll of 1,109 people conducted between Sept. 13 and 16 suggested council’s 2011 decision may be overturned.
According to the poll, 68 per cent of respondents were in favour of the reintroduction of fluoride into the city’s drinking water, with 21 per cent of respondents still undecided on the issue.
Among decided voters, the poll showed 76 per cent of respondents were in support of fluoride, with 24 per cent planning to vote against it.
“The plebiscite should pass by a very healthy margin, with support 3:1 over opposition,” ThinkHQ president Marc Henry said in a news release.
“If it does pass by that wide a margin, perhaps Calgary voters can have some solace in knowing they may not have to deal with the issue again for a decade or two.”
ThinkHQ’s online survey of 1,109 Calgarians over the age of 18 was conducted between Sept. 13 and 16 and has a margin of error of +/- 2.9 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
According to Elections Calgary, the fluoride plebiscite vote is non-binding, which means it will ultimately be up to the new mayor and city council to make a decision once they are elected on Oct. 18.