By Stephen Adams
Millions more people could have fluoride added to their water after a court ruled that a health authority was within its rights to force the measure on residents.
Campaigners in Southampton had attempted to stop South Central Strategic Health Authority (SCSHA) from fluoridating the supplies of 195,000 people, arguing it was ignoring local opinion.
Geraldine Milner, a mother-of-three from the city, applied for the judicial review at the High Court, backed by anti-fluoridation groups.
Lawyers argued the SHA had failed in its legal obligation to assess the arguments for and against fluoridation.
Campaigners believe there are potential health risks to adding the chemical to water, including raised incidence of thyroid problems and even bone cancer, and say that to do so without a local mandate is undemocratic.
On Friday Mr Justice Holman ruled in favour of the health authority, saying that “our democratic Parliament decided long ago that water can, in certain circumstances, be fluoridated”.
He added: “This SHA have not acted unlawfully and no court can interfere with their decision.”
The British Dental Association (BDA) welcomed the decision.
Prof Damien Walmsley, its scientific adviser, said: “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.”
He added: “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.”
About 5.5 million people in Britain, just less than a tenth of the population, drink fluoridated tap water, including most of Birmingham and parts of Newcastle.
However, the area covered by fluoridation has not increased in 20 years.
In 1998 Newcastle and North Tyneside health authority failed in a High Court bid to force Northumbrian Water to fluoridate supplies to 2.5 million people.
Then Mr Justice Collins said the water company had no statutory duty to do so. The decision deterred other health authorities from applying.
Prof Walmsley said the Southampton case changed the game and could result in a new wave of consultations.
He said: “This is an important decision. Other authorities are all prepared to go forward but have been waiting to see how this one turns out.”
He believed Manchester council was looking and others were too.
Colwyn Jones, a consultant in dental public health for the BDA, added: “Now the judicial review has ruled in favour, I think quite a large number of authorities will start to look at it.”
Under current laws, the decision to consult on fluoridation does not need approval of the Health Secretary or special legislation. A spokesman for the Department of Health said it was a “local decision”. At the moment that decision is taken by SHAs. When they are abolished in 2013, responsibility will pass to local authorities.