By Moon Gwang-lip
The ruling Uri Party is working on a bill to force every municipal government to add fluoride to tap water, restarting an old debate over water fluoridation.
A child drinks fluoridated water at a Seoul park in this file photo. Civic groups have criticized the government and the ruling party for pushing ahead with a bill designed to launch mandatory tap water fluoridation, raising concerns about its negative health effects.
/ Korea Times
Civic groups have threatened to block the bill, raising concerns over the harmful effects of fluoride and challenging the public’s right to choose what they drink.
A dozen Uri Party lawmakers, including Rep. Jang Hyang-sook, drafted the bill and submitted it to the National Assembly in June.
``Water fluoridation is the most effective way to improve the dental health of the public,’’ Jang was quoted as saying by her assistant Choo Kyung-min by telephone.
As dentist visits in Korea are not covered by national health insurance, the cost is very high, which makes people more vulnerable to dental problems than other diseases, the lawmaker said.
She added that fluoridation has been found to be effective in treating tooth decay by the World Health Organization (WHO) and it can help prevent dental problems, which can save people money on costly treatment later on.
Water fluoridation is not new. It has been implemented in public health projects since 1981 but is not compulsory.
The government has encouraged local administrations to put fluoride in tap water, citing dental experts who say it is a cost-effective public health measure that helps prevent tooth decay in children.
The project, however, failed to win the public’s approval because of the claim by some medical experts that fluoride is detrimental to the human body.
Accordingly, only 29 out of around 250 municipal governments have introduced the water fluoridation project.
Even some cities serving as a test bed for the system, such as Kwachon and Chongju, became aware of citizens’ opposition and ceased the project in 2003 and 2004, respectively.
``Most Koreans are against drinking fluoride. So why is the ruling party pushing for mandatory fluoridation now? It may just be a political scheme,’’ said Byun Hong-chul, secretary-general of the National Coalition Against Water Fluoridation.
According to the secretary-general, the failure of the fluoridation project has brought the ministry division in charge of it to the brink of abolition.
And in a revival effort, the division may have caused the ruling party to come up with the bill.
Whether that is the case is still uncertain, but it is very probable considering what the ministry has done for the bill, Byun said.
Recently, the ministry began to show more interest in water fluoridation.
Song Jae-seong, vice minister of health and welfare, revealed this new enthusiasm during a media conference by saying, ``The ministry will put a quick end to the long-held controversy over the damaging effects of fluoridation and push ahead with fluoridation.’’
The ministry, however, says that there is nothing more behind the bill than its concern for the public’s health.
``The average number of decayed teeth of a 12-year-old was 3.3 in 2003, more than double the world’s average of 1.6,’’ a ministry official said.
``The figure is more than five times the 1972 number estimated at 0.6. The cost of dental treatment for this problem exceeds 1 trillion won each year. This is why water fluoridation is urgently needed,’’ he added.
Byun said the excessive dependency on elitism has also caused the ruling party and the government to disregard public opinion when bringing up the bill.
``Politicians and government officials don’t listen to the people. They only listen to who they think are experts,’’ he claimed.
``There are also many experts speaking out against the undesirable effects of fluoride.’’
``Nonetheless, the ruling party and the government are not willing to review them, thinking they lack credibility. This know-it-all attitude takes public health policy down the wrong path,’’ he claimed.
Kim Jong-chul, a professor at Youngnam University and the president of the civic group, says the government needs to pay heed to recently-released research showing the harmful effects of fluoride.
He cited research conducted by Elise Bassin, a Harvard University doctoral student.
According to her seven-year study on fluoride exposure, boys who drink fluoridated water appear to have an increased risk of developing bone cancer.
In the wake of the report, unions representing employees of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other public health professionals in the United States asked Congress in August to impose a nationwide moratorium on water fluoridation programs.
And the EPA has decided to review its ruling on fluoride and asked the National Research Council to conduct a review on the safety of the EPA standard. The EPA expects a report in 2006.
In a fluoridation-related seminar held on Oct. 9 in Seoul, a Vietnamese expert presented the results of a 12-year fluoridation program in Ho Chi Minh City, saying the rate of tooth decay among children was reduced but was accompanied by a higher risk of dental fluorosis.
Dental fluorosis is an enamel defect caused by an excessive intake of fluoride during enamel formation.
``Nonetheless, the ministry keeps saying a small dose of fluoride is not harmful. But even dentists are not sure if that is the case,’’ Kim said.
``Some dentists say pregnant women and people who are sick may have a serious reaction to just a bit of fluoride,’’ he said.
The professor said that the government should also review the fluoridation scheme because it is not being addressed democratically.
``The government is trying to force people into drinking fluoride even though the majority is against it,’’ he said.
``A true democratic government should allow the people to choose what to drink,’’ he added.