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Observer, 22nd September, 1996.
The debate over whether to fluoride in drinking water has dragged on for years.
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 McCrystal.
"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 withholding data.
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 child's teeth".
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 said.
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 the province.
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 water supplies.
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 interests'.
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 look.