HL Deb 13 February 2002 vol 631 cc1087-90

2.38 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to ensure that accurate and balanced information is provided to parents whose children are being offered fluoridated school milk, to help them make an informed choice.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath)

My Lords, there are currently seven fluoridated milk schemes at schools in the North West and Yorkshire. When a scheme is under consideration, health service staff visit the school and explain the objectives of the scheme both to parents and staff. Leaflets and letters are then issued to parents, which indicate that children who are taking fluoride tablets or drops do not need fluoridated milk and that milk without the addition of fluoride will remain available.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that in Manchester, which is one of the areas concerned—I am sure that it is not an isolated example—although the chief dental officer is offering balanced information on the subject, the leader of the council has asked that so-called dental milk be positively marketed? Is the noble Lord aware that it is almost impossible to do those two things simultaneously? Is he further aware that little mention is made in the literature of the many scientific experiments throughout the world that show that fluoride, as well as being poisonous—as so many substances are—does not, in fact, reduce tooth decay?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, that is a matter for the schools and the local authority. I have seen the leaflet that the NHS issued to parents, and I believe that it gives relevant and correct information. I am happy to place copies of it in the Library.

With regard to the wider question about the effects of fluoridation raised by the noble Lord, it is worth making the point that the Government asked York University to undertake a robust review of all the evidence available. In relation to the main assertions that have been made about fluoridation, the review found that there was no clear association between water fluoridation and incidence of or mortality from, for example, bone cancers and thyroid cancers. At the same time, because of the need for a robust evidence base, we have asked the Medical Research Council to consider whether more research should be undertaken.

Lord Tomlinson

My Lords, I declare a non-financial interest as president of the British Fluoridation Society. Can my noble friend confirm the British Dental Association view that targeted fluoridation is one of the best ways of ensuring that children grow up with strong, healthy teeth? The direct fluoridation of water particularly benefits people such as those whom my noble friend knows well in the city of Birmingham. Can my noble friend confirm the benefits to those who either have access to fluoridated milk or participate in the Government's "Brushing for life" scheme?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords. the most striking figures that I have are from a 1993–94 survey that, I believe, has been recently repeated, showing the same pattern. The survey shows that in the south of Birmingham, for instance, the average number of decayed, missing and filled teeth for a five year-old child is 0.92, compared to 3.45 in central Manchester, which is non-fluoridated. That shows the effect of fluoridation in the water supply and the other schemes mentioned by my noble friend.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, is it not true that many substances taken in excess are poisonous and that the statement made by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, in his response to the Minister's original Answer, that fluoride is poisonous would indicate a dosage entirely different from that used in any fluoridated water scheme? Is the Minister aware that in California a 1 per cent majority vote resulted in the introduction of fluoridated water, containing the properly controlled measure of fluoride for dental benefit and no disbenefit? However, many people declared that they would use only bottled water from then on. When an analysis was made of the bottled water, it showed much higher levels of fluoride in that water than would ever have been permitted in fluoridated water. Does he agree that, worldwide, the opinion is that fluoride is extremely beneficial and that in this country it would do much to narrow the gap between the more affluent and those in greater need, whose teeth are much worse?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I find the noble Baroness wholly persuasive on this matter.

Lord Clement-Jones

My Lords, many of us are broadly in favour of the fluoridation of both milk and water. The Minister mentioned the University of York report. Is he aware that it is now some 13 months since its publication in 2000? Is it not now high time that the MRC made its recommendations with regard to the high-quality research that needs to be done? Can the Minister state precisely what research will be entered into? After all, both the proponents and opponents of fluoridation badly need and want that research to be carried out.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, the MRC has been asked to advise us on the current scientific evidence regarding the health effects of water fluoridation and to consider whether further research in this area is required to inform public health policy. No doubt the noble Lord will be reassured to learn that the MRC is due to report to the department in the spring.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, should not the Government respect the very real concerns felt by some people about the effects of fluoridation? After all, in line with lead, fluoride is poisonous if taken in overdose. Its effects depend on dosage, thus if children use fluoridated toothpaste and drink fluoridated water and then perhaps drink fluoridated milk as well, then they are at risk of affecting their thyroid glands. A good deal of research has demonstrated low-level effects on the thyroid which are not good in the long term. This is an area in which further research needs to be undertaken. Should we not respect both sides of the argument and find out what is the truth?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, of course we will listen with care to the advice given by the MRC concerning research. However, I have to say that I think that the noble Countess has rather exaggerated the potential ill-effects of fluoride. I think that the balance of evidence is quite clear. The University of York review, which was very robust, could find no evidence of the allegations that have frequently been made about fluoridation. I do believe that fluoridation could be one of the most effective health measures to be developed in this country.

Baroness Uddin

My Lords—

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords—

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, I think that it is the turn of my noble friend Lady Uddin.

Baroness Uddin

My Lords, I am deeply grateful. In light of the debate held in the House on Monday evening on health matters among minority communities, does my noble friend recognise that a significant population in minority communities does not receive information on issues such as the one raised in this Question? Can he tell the House how he will ensure that sufficient accessible information and advocacy with regard to this matter are made available to citizens living in areas such as Manchester, Birmingham and Yorkshire?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, my noble friend is right. I have evidence to show that, on average, Asian children have 2.9 decayed teeth, while white children have an average of 1.6 such teeth. A study in Birmingham showed that only 28 per cent of Asian children were registered with a dentist compared with 68 per cent of white children. I believe that those figures are replicated in other minority ethnic groups. It is clear that local health authorities need to develop strategies on oral health which ensure that disadvantaged groups are targeted.