Go-ahead for fluoride in tap water

High court rejects complaint by Southampton resident and rules fluoride can be added to water there

Renewed efforts to add fluoride to tap water across the UK are likely after the high court gave the go-ahead for the NHS in Southampton to do so.

The court rejected a complaint by Southampton resident Geraldine Milner that the South Central strategic health authority's plans to fluoridate the city's water supply broke the law.

Mr Justice Holman, sitting in London, denied Miller's claim that the decision-making process was "defective". He ruled there was no substance in any of the grounds of complaint and that her legal challenge must be dismissed.

Milner had sought a judicial review of the SHA's plans and been backed by local anti-fluoride campaign groups. She opposed the SHA's use of statutory powers in February 2009 to instruct Southern Water, the local water provider, to go ahead with fluoridation.

Many doctors, dentists and public health specialists support flouridation as a way of reducing dental decay. It was proposed for Southampton and some of south-west Hampshire because the city has more than twice the national average for children with serious tooth decay. But opponents criticise it as "enforced medicine" and claim that it can lead to problems such as bone cancer and thyroid problems.

Other local authorities who had put fluoridation schemes on hold pending the outcome of the case are likely to be encouraged by the ruling and revive their plans.

Refusing the claim for judicial review, the judge expressed sympathy for people like Milner who disagreed with fluoridation but said he had not been able to conclude that there had been any illegality in the decision-making process. Parliament has decided that water can be flouridated in certain circumstances and the approval of a majority of the local population was not needed for that, he said. "This SHA have not acted unlawfully and no court can interfere with their decision."

The British Dental Association, which represents 23,000 of the UK's 36,000 dentists, welcomed the ruling. "Fluoridation will play an important role in reducing the worryingly high levels of dental decay in Southampton where as many as 42% of five-year olds have experienced tooth decay. Despite a range of oral health measures used by Southampton City PCT to reduce these high levels of tooth decay and to address health inequalities, "more than 520 children in Southampton still required general anaesthetic to have a total of 2,900 teeth extracted in 2007," said a spokeswoman.

Professor Damien Walmsley, the BDA's scientific adviser, added: "The BDA is pleased with the result because it is likely to encourage consultation on similar schemes in other parts of the country where fluoride could help address the poor dental health of the population. A recent European summary of the latest scientific evidence reiterated the view that water fluoridation is a safe and effective method of reducing oral health inequalities."

A Department of Health spokeswoman said: "The outcome of the judicial review shows that the SHA followed the correct legislative process when carrying out their consultation and making their decision. The SHA must now decide how they take things forward."

Contributor

Denis Campbell, health correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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