News / Calgary

Fluoride debate: The Alex sees growing demand for dental services

The organization received municipal funding in 2011 to tackle tooth decay in children

The Alex - a non-profit group that provides dental care to underprivileged children - has seen a spike in demand for service.

Metro File

The Alex - a non-profit group that provides dental care to underprivileged children - has seen a spike in demand for service.

Denise Kokaram isn’t afraid of fluoride.  

Kokaram — program lead for The Alex Dental Health Bus — said even though the organization is helping more kids with dental issues every year, she knows there’s a vast majority of kids who aren’t getting proper dental care.

Part of the solution, she said, is fluoridated water.

The fluoride debate has resurfaced recently, after a University of Calgary study found the rate of tooth decay in children has increased ever since the city removed the additive from its drinking water.

In February 2011, council voted 10-3 to pull fluoride from taps. But in July 2012, the city injected one-time funding of $750,000 — or what it would normally spend on water fluoridation — into local dental-care programs for underprivileged kids.

The Alex Community Health Centre and CUPS received $585,000 and $165,000, respectively.

The Alex put that money into an endowment fund, where accumulated interest pays for its dental bus.

Kokaram said she’s heard the same arguments against the additive over — and over — again.

Arguments include bad parenting, lack of education, and that only a small fraction of the population benefit from fluoridated water, she said.

But poverty works differently, Kokaram added.

In fact, the Alex is serving families who fall under the working disadvantaged class — those who don’t qualify for government benefits but can’t afford health insurance.

“When it comes to $1,000 — the cost of treatment many of these kids need — families can’t pay that; they have to put food on the table and pay bills,” she said.

The move to pull fluoride from the city’s taps was spearheaded by Coun. Druh Farrell.

Along with costs, arguments for its removal included “mass-dosing” of the the population, and how fluoridation should be paid by the provincial government.

In 2011, councillors said they were disappointed Alberta Health Services (AHS) didn’t step up to provide solutions for low-income families that largely depend on fluoridation.

Farrell remains firm on that position, as do other councillors.  

“The city is clearly not in the role of health care,” Farrell said, adding the city went over and above by funding the Alex and CUPS.

However, fluoridation has largely been handled by municipalities. And Kokaram thinks it should stay that way.

But the provincial government has a role to play in dental health, Kokaram added. Things like re-evaluating requirements so the working disadvantaged can get proper dental-care.

Farrell said she’d support further capital investment in the Alex and CUPS, though she’s not sure other councillors would agree.

That funding is sorely needed, according to the Alex’s CEO Shelley Heartwell.

“Every year demand grows,” she said. “Going down the road we’re going to find it more difficult with the economy.”

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