By Sean Meyer/London Community News
Fluoridation of the city’s water supply is either a safe and inexpensive technique to improve people’s health or is an insulting way of eliminating personal freedom of choice.
Despite hours of "he said, she said" conversations, those were the two fundamental issues that came forward during a Civic Works Committee meeting at Centennial Hall that began on Wednesday evening (Jan. 25) and ran into the early hours of Thursday morning.
An audience of more than 250 people turned out to listen to presentations from doctors, dentists, activists and ordinary citizens passionately supportive of their given side of the debate. Of that crowd, approximately three-quarters of those speaking were calling for an end to fluoridation, which started in London in 1967.
Ultimately, a meeting that wrapped up at almost 1 a.m. saw the committee vote to have staff pour over the details of the nearly six-hour meeting with the intention of bringing back a report in six weeks. Staff indicated it would be difficult to have a report ready for the committee’s next meeting, but felt comfortable with the one after that.
Ward 12 Councillor Harold Usher, who is also the committee chair, had to listen to calls of bias from the audience throughout the evening. However, Usher said he believes he worked in the best interest of everyone, particularly those shouting the loudest against fluoridation.
“If they wanted a decision tonight, well we had enough votes to keep fluoride (in the water),” Usher said. “But I persuaded them (the committee) to send it back to staff and show these people that we listened to them. This motion indicates we listened.”
Mayor Joe Fontana, who remained quiet throughout the majority of the meeting, said afterwards the decision to put off any recommendation until a later date was the right one — particularly given the time of the day.
And with what he said was input from “an awful lot of engaged people that wanted some answers,” Fontana said it was prudent to give staff the time to prepare a proper report.
“They (the public) had their say; we had a lot of darn good information on both side of the issue,” Fontana said. “A lot of questions from council members, but it is 12:30 a.m. and you are not going to be able to make a good, rational debate and discussion, and a vote, at almost 1 a.m. in the morning. So we referred a lot of good questions to staff.”
The meeting began with presentations from John Braam, city engineer and director of water, along with representatives of the Middlesex-London Health Unit and Health Canada, on the advantages of fluoridation.
From that point, members of the public spoke out — on one occasion, even breaking out in song — for and against fluoridation. Following 55 speakers — both scheduled and added by Usher after the schedule presentations had ended — the committee moved to address the practice of fluoridation.
Ward 5 Councillor Joni Baechler asked for great clarification on issues such as applied consent (one of the key points stressed by anti-fluoridation speakers), the legal impact of any council decision and greater information on the materials used in the fluoridation process.
Ward 14 Councillor Sandy White asked for further information to be provided on options to fluoridation, not counting the generally accepted alternative of better nutrition.
Ward 4 Councillor Stephen Orser, who has expressed concerns in the past over Usher’s style as chair, grew further frustrated after looking for clarification on the use of fluoride during the Second World War and its possible use as a means of torture.
Staff and public health officials said they had no information on that subject, an answer repeated twice by Usher. Orser, however, slammed his fist on the table in anger, considering that another example of Usher trying to “run the thing like a dictator.”
In response after the meeting, Usher said he didn’t put much stock in the outburst, but wanted to reiterate he believe he was doing the best he could for the members of the public in attendance.
“Steve Orser, I don’t count what he does. He always tries to make things more difficult. But the people out there (in the audience) are different. I can understand what they are going through,” Usher said. “I have to chair this meeting and get it done. The alternative was to hold it over for another day and that would have been a month down the road.”
From his perspective, Fontana said the exchange between councillors was easy to explain. “It’s the time of night. Everyone is passionate about issues. It’s OK.”