Christ knows I should have better things to be writing about than water fluoridation but these things have a habit of lodging in my consciousness and the only way of flushing them out is to write something about it.
Last night a majority of councillors on Dublin City Council voted against the fluoridation of the water supply. Less than half an hour earlier a majority of councillors voted on a motion deploring the excessive mobilisation of Gardaí including the Public Order Unit into Dublin housing estates and the arrest of residents under the Water Services Act, and declared its support for peaceful resistance to water meter installation.
On the surface of it, the motion was an important statement of solidarity with people fearing the impact of water charges and treated like criminals for making their objections public.
The vote against the fluoridation of the water supply, however, has dominated attention on social media, the response largely negative, with people declaring that they would not vote for any person or party who had voted against fluoridation.
Such declarations and other negative responses are based on the conviction that water fluoridation poses no danger to the public and is in fact beneficial to public health, and in particular to the dental health of impoverished children. This conviction is based on a body of scientific evidence indicating the beneficial effects of water fluoridation in this regard.
For my part, based on what I’ve read about it, I think the conviction is largely correct. My main qualification would be that general discussion of water fluoridation rests on the assumption that the regulatory bodies and authorities tasked with the fluoridation of water are good enough to ensure that the quantity of fluoride in the water supply is not in excess of levels that would pose an identifiable health risk.
There are quite a few colourful characters mobilising against the removal of water fluoridation, and they make claims that do not stand up to scrutiny. But why does their message -and not, say, the message of those predicting the end of the world at some identified date before next summer- find traction? Is it because people are just stupid?
If people are susceptible to arguments that fluoridation as such amounts to an enforced policy of harmful mass medication, I suggest it is down, at least in part, to the fact that many are reluctant to take the claims of authorities charged with public welfare in Ireland at face value. What is more, this reluctance can, with justification, rely on the solid ground of bitter experience, whether in one’s personal encounters or in knowledge of real-life horror stories: symphisiotomy, caesarean hysterectomies, baby trafficking, child slavery, the Hepatitis C crisis, to name a few. The Sinn Féin councillor, who introduced the motion at Dublin City Council, Anthony Connaghan, referred to the case of the Irish government’s failure to issue a warning about Thalidomide.
Objecting to Anthony Connaghan’s motion was David Costello of Fianna Fáil. Highlighting his own background as a scientist, he insisted on the unreliability of the scientific claims being made against fluoridation, and singled out people wearing pink bikinis as a reasonable indication that the anti-fluoride campaign was not to be trusted, and that people backing Connaghan’s motion were ‘crazy’. He also said that it was
the only health initiative in the last hundred years in this country that has looked after the working class people
It’s quite a startling admission from a member of a party that has held power for 61 of the past hundred years. It indicates that the Irish State does not respond to the needs of Ireland’s working class, but to those of certain other groups.
I agree, of course, but that’s beside the point: the argument for the maintenance of fluoridation of water, typified by David Costello, can be advanced, and can appear perfectly reasonable in polite society, regardless of one’s broader perspectives on democratic government.
It is perfectly reasonable, according to this argument, to fluoridate the water supply because it is beneficial to the health of an impoverished minority, but this does not carry with it any obligation to include any wider consideration of why the socio-economic inequalities that it supposedly redresses actually exist in the first instance, including consideration of why Ireland’s political institutions consistently fail to address these inequalities.
A rigorous application of the scientific method, once it dawned on David Costello that his party had done next nothing to address the health needs of Ireland’s working class in the best part of a century would be for him to burn his Fianna Fáil membership card immediately. Assuming, of course, that he actually cared.
Nor does this carry with it, as far as I can see, any obligation to apply the scientific method to public health policies more broadly. The lethal effects of austerity policies have been widely documented. One such example is the work of David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu in The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills. And yet the hoots of derision that greet anti-fluoridation campaigners, or people concerned with fluoride in the water supply more generally, seldom greet the latest missive from the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council or the Irish Central Bank.
Why is this? Part of the reason, I think, is that the idea, as far as conventional wisdom goes, that “the working class people” are there to be “looked after” but have no agency as political subjects, permeates right to the bone in Ireland. ‘The working class’ frequently appears in Ireland’s legislative history, but as a class that serves a particular function within a society where their proper place in the scheme of things is already known, and not open to question or alteration.
And anti-fluoride political positions, and anti-fluoride paranoia, are seldom -if ever- considered in terms of the paternalistic contempt shown by State institutions, including the Oireachtas, towards working class people.
One can be in favour of water fluoridation because it is in the best interests of ‘the working class people’ and one can, simultaneously, be in favour of austerity because it is in the best interests of ‘the working class people’ (usually incorporated to ‘Ireland’ or ‘the Irish people’) and feel free of any obligation to consider what working class people actually think, feel, say or do.