Orange and green unite to fight a yellowing peril
Observer, 22nd September, 1996.
THE debate over whether to fluoride in drinking water has dragged on for
Stephen Collins by Lough Neagh: 'A lot of
prayer is going into my child's teeth,' says his mother.
Photograph by Kelvin Boyes
Fears over the effects of water
fluoridation on the teeth of Ulster's children have forged an alliance
between parents on both sides of the sectarian divide, writes Cal
'Stephen's molars were painted with fluoride gel without
consulting me. Two months later, the teeth came through with a weird yellow
colour. A corner of of one broke off. I felt so angry after years of denying
him sweets and fizzy drinks'
GNASHING of teeth is an enduring accompaniment to Northern Ireland's
uncertain 'peace process'. But now the fangs themselves are in heated
contention as the province faces fluoridation of its drinking water. In this
'teeth process', Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley gnash as one.
In their opposition to fluoridation, Adams and Paisley have the backing
of 25 of Northern Ireland's 26 local councils and of a growing number of
angry campaigners who regard the water treatment as a health hazard yet to
be adequately measured.
Ranged against them are the fluoridistas - agents of direct British
rule in Northern Ireland, including Malcolm Moss, the Cambridgeshire MP who runs
the province's health and environment department; the four area health boards,
who are all appointed by the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland,
Patrick Mayhew; and the British Dental Association.
The Government is always going on about the majority of citizens determining
the future of this place,' said a Sinn Fein councillor, Mary Nelis, last week.
'Here is an issue on which a majority is united, yet is ignored.'
Jaws jerk, threats throb, fear takes root as opinion polls show an 88 per
cent resistance to fluoridation. Local politicians on both sides of the
sectarian divide accuse the Government and its agents of deception and
When a reporter on the Lurgan Mail wrote a straightforward account of
an anti-fluoride meeting, he was subjected to a vitriolic attack by his area
health board. An anti-fluoride chemist who claims her child's molars were
damaged by fluoride gel told me that 'a lot of prayer is going into each of my
On the whole, dentists support the use of fluoride, a compound containing the
element fluorine, as an agent against tooth decay - in Northern Ireland tooth
decay is rampant. 'But what we object to is enforced medication,' Mrs Nelis
She has the backing of the National Pure Water Association, whose Northern
Ireland chairman, Robert Boyd, a County Down osteopath, is also anxious about
evidence that excessive doses of fluoride cause brittle bones and fluorosis, an
unsightly mottling of the teeth.
Fluorosis produces a parental fury hardly less intense than if the Black and
Tans had again crossed the Irish Sea. The fluoridistas are accused by
their opponents of being less than open about the 'teeth process', and using
'stealth' and 'blatant lies'.
They are not insensitive to the criticism. 'Will there be a political element
in what you write?' - asked a spokesman at the Northern Ireland Office.
With the exception of the West Midlands and the north-east of England, the
privatised water utilities in mainland Britain are resisting mass fluoridation.
But Northern Ireland's water is not due to be privatised until next year, by
which time the Government hopes to have fluoridated the water and reservoirs of
Objectors say: 'London perfidy!' Although no official decision is expected
before the end of the year, those who can afford them have plugged in
distillation plants, suspecting that area health boards have already spiked the
Among them are Donnard and Olwen Collies, who live near Lurgan, and Walter
and Maria Graham, near Downpatrick.
Mr Collies is a Church of Ireland clergyman whose rectory is on the edge of
Lough Neagh, the largest lake in these islands and due for fluoride treatment.
His wife, a pharmacist, said: 'When my son Stephen's molars were erupting,
the dentist painted them with fluoride gel, without consulting me. Two months
later the teeth came through with a weird yellow colour. Something had damaged
the enamel. A corner a broke off. I felt so angry, after years of denying him
sweets and fizzy drinks.
'Later, a piece broke off another tooth - in a child who never had a filling.
Last night I saw another hole in the first tooth.
'Stevens sister Ruth, who is seven, has been set school essays on the
benefits of fluoride. Propaganda!'
The Grahams, who have two toddlers, are equally incensed. New Yorkers who
emigrated to Ireland seeking tranquillity, they thought they had found it in a
restored Ulster farmhouse with a view of the Mourne mountains.
'We had fluoride put in our water in New York when I was a kid,' Mr Graham
said. 'Now, after a 30-year fight against it, most places in New York are
unfluoridated. I didn't expect to find fluoride here.' The couple have been
buying bottled water and using a distillation machine. If the Secretary of State
opts for fluoridation, the Grahams will consider abandoning their farmhouse.
Mr Graham has voluminous files, on the reported side-effects of fluoride. One
report said fluoridation was like a doctor treating a patient without knowing
his name, his medical history or the dosage of the drug he needs - if any.
So how well founded are the fears? The anti-fluoridistas point out
that Europe has done a U-turn on fluoride. Hans Moolenburgh, chairman of a Dutch
group of doctors who examined its side-effects, reported stomach pains, mouth
sores, skin rashes, frequent headaches, excessive thirst, arthritis-like pains
in the lower spine and reduced concentration. He said the symptoms disappeared
when fluoride intake ceased.
In the Irish Republic, where 60 per cent of drinking water has been
fluoridated for more than 30 years, dentists point to a dramatic improvement in
dental health. But critics claim that half of the Republic's children have
fluorosis. Dublin's Lord Mayor, Sean D. Dublin Bay-Rockall Loftus, has joined
battle against the fluoridistas, who he says include `strong vested
In the North, aspects of the Troubles imbue the fluoride controversy. The
National Pure Water Association has in its war chest this 1981 statement about
the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands: 'Mr Sands is now unable to hold down tap
water containing fluoride. So he's drinking spring water only.'
Experimentally, two water catchment areas -Holywood, in north Down, and
Tandragee, Co Armagh - have been fluoridated for years. But there are no
'available' data to measure the impact.
Walter Graham offers one theory about the rush to fluoridate Ulster's water.
'In 1976 Margaret Thatcher suggested fluoride for Northern Ireland. German
research shows fluoride has mind-controlling properties. It made people
lethargic. Remember, Mrs Thatcher has a chemistry degree. So why should she
suggest fluoride for Northern Ireland?'
Because Northern Ireland was out of control? Mr Graham gave me a knowing