On Nov. 14, city council voted to reinstate fluoridation in Calgary’s waters. The count was not close, with 13 of a possible 15 council members deciding in favour of the motion.

Only Andre Chabot and Dan McLean, councillors of Ward 10 and 13 respectively, voted against this notion.

This decision followed a plebiscite held on Oct. 18, in which the prospect of reintroducing fluoride in the water supply was back on the ballot for the first time in 10 years.

As Calgarians await the return of fluoridation within the city’s drinking water, here is a history of the expensive and contentious compound. 

Pros and cons

Fluorides are not a foriegn chemical to Albertans, or anyone for that matter. They frequently occur within everyday water and foods, with a small concentration present in freshwater streams and lakes due to soil erosion.

The natural chemicals are also well known to reduce tooth decay and strengthen enamel in adults and children. According to the CDC, drinking fluoridated water is estimated to increase tooth health by 25 per cent. Additionally, community fluoridation is the most cost-efficient way to ensure long-term dental health within a city.

The city estimates the natural level of fluoride in both the Bow and Elbow Rivers can fluctuate between 0.1 mg/L and 0.4 mg/L, depending on the time of year. While these levels do provide tangible benefits to teeth, it is not enough to provide local communities with the strength listed above.

Should the city increase the dosage, it could result in fluoride concentrations ranging anywhere between 0.7 mg/L and 1.5 mg/L. 

However, this reintroduction would not be without its costs.

A 2020 estimate from city officials gauged the costs of treatment plant renovation and reinstatement of fluoride to be approximately $10.1 million, with a following upkeep toll of around $1 million annually. General maintenance could result in additional costs between $2 million and $4 million over a two-decade span.

It has frequently been these large costs resulting in the turbulent relationship between the city and fluoride.

The history of Calgary and fluoridation

1957

1957

Fluoridation was first proposed to Calgarians in a 1957 plebiscite, 12 years before Mayor Jyoti Gondek was born. This followed its success improving local dental health in other Canadian municipalities.

Despite their contemporaries implementing fluoridation, Calgarians voted to keep it out of the water, a trend that would remain consistent for 32 years.

Plebiscites took place again in 1961, 1966 and 1971, with the city never quite pulling the trigger on increasing fluoridation levels.

1989

More than three decades since it was first proposed, Calgarians were asked for a fifth time whether or not the city should implement the practice. This time, however, residents leaned in favour of upping the concentration of fluoride in the rivers, a historic first for the city. 

Fluoridation in the city began two years later at an approximate concentration of 1.0 mg/L.

1998

Just under 10 years later, fluoride was once again on the ballot. Unlike previous plebiscites, it was held to decide whether to simply reduce the concentration or discontinue it entirely.

In a close vote, 55 per cent of Calgarians voted to keep fluoride, and the dosage was reduced to 0.7 mg/L.

2011

The most recent vote on fluoridation lead to its ousting 10 years ago. This decision was made by city council and was met with controversy due to lack of a public plebiscite, along with former mayor Naheed Nenshi being out of town amidst the decision. 

It was later debated if a plebiscite for the chemical’s reimplementation would be held in 2013, but this was ultimately shot down. The savings of discontinuing the program were roughly $750,000 per year at the time.

2021

This brings us to today, where on Oct. 18, residents were polled on whether the city should renovate the now-outdated facilities and bring back fluoridation within the city.

In the end, 62 per cent of citizens voted in favour of fluoridation.

Calgary’s 2021 fluoride plebiscite results. Courtesy of Elections Calgary.

Despite the decisive vote, this was a non-binding plebiscite which left things in council’s hands. The deliberation was held on Nov. 14, with the overwhelming majority of council members voting to officially bring it back.

Fluoridation is expected to begin once again within the next two years.

It is uncertain what the city’s concentration of fluoride will be. A dosage of 0.7 mg/L is the current recommendation by Health Canada.

Fluoridation is present in the waters of many larger municipalities across the province, including Edmonton, Red Deer and Lethbridge.

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Elections editor and reporter for the Calgary Journal.