Plans to tackle tooth decay in the region through water fluoridation may see the scheme expanded to 1.6 million people in the North East.

The government announced the plans in a public consultation on Monday (March 25) – with around half of the North East currently having fluoridated water in parts of County Durham, Gateshead and Newcastle.

Fluoride is a naturally occurring mineral which protects teeth against decay. Natural levels of fluoride in water can be safely topped up to provide additional protection for teeth and reduce dental health inequalities, with decades of research showing it is effective and safe.

The scheme aims to expand this to the whole of the region.

Professor Sir Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer for England, said: “Water fluoridation can reduce the prevalence of tooth decay and improve dental health equity across the UK. It should be seen as a complementary strategy, not a substitute for other effective methods of increasing fluoride use such as tooth brushing.”

Professor Peter Kelly, Regional Public Health Director for the North East, said: “Tooth decay is largely preventable but remains a major public health issue, particularly in more deprived areas, including parts of the north east, and among children.
“If tooth decay takes root from a young age, it cannot be reversed so interventions like this are really important.

“Expanding water fluoridation to a further 1.6 million people will deliver health benefits across the whole region for generations to come.” 

Around 6 million people in England already live in areas with fluoridated water.

Fluoridation is commonly used internationally as a measure to tackle tooth decay.

Around 400 million people in 25 countries worldwide – including the US, Canada and Ireland – live in areas with fluoridation schemes.

The scheme is part of the government’s Dental Recovery Plan, which contains a range of measures aimed at preventing tooth decay and creating an additional 2.5 million dental appointments this year.

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Fluoridation is particularly effective for young children and vulnerable adults alongside other good habits, like brushing with fluoride toothpaste.

A 2023 survey found 16 per cent of schoolchildren in year 6 living in the North East suffered tooth decay, compared to 12 per cent of children living in the south west.

Water fluoridation is shown to be effective. A 2022 report showed five-year-olds in areas with fluoridated water in England were less likely to experience tooth decay compared to areas without, and are less likely to be admitted to hospital to have teeth removed.

Health Minister Andrea Leadsom said: “Preventing tooth decay is a key part of our Dental Recovery Plan. We will support new parents via our family hubs programme to ensure brushing is a part of every child’s daily routine by the time they reach primary school.

“We’ll be sending mobile dental teams into schools in under served areas to provide fluoride varnish treatments to more than 165,000 children and education as well as advice on good oral health.

“On top of these actions, the extension of water fluoridation in places like the north east will deliver population-wide improvements in oral health.”

Interim Chief Dental Officer for England Jason Wong said:  “Water fluoridation is a highly effective public health measure that’s already benefitted millions of people across the north east and other parts of the country over several decades.

“Reducing tooth decay supports wider health and wellbeing and reduces health inequalities by narrowing differences in dental health between more and less deprived areas, and this important measure forms a key part of our dental recovery plan which aims to improve access to NHS dental services across England.” 

Greg Fell, President of the Association of Directors of Public Health said: “Tooth decay is the leading cause of hospital admissions for five-to-nine-year-olds. That has a serious impact on both individuals and their families, with days missed from education and work, as well as a significant cost to the NHS.

“While families need to be equipped with the knowledge and skills to oversee good dental hygiene, there is much we can do as a society to improve the situation and water fluoridation schemes are the single most effective public health measure for reducing tooth decay rates.

"This proposed expansion therefore presents a real opportunity to improve health and wellbeing in the north east, and reduce the unacceptable gap in health outcomes that people living in different areas of the country currently experience.”

In the Health & Care Act 2022, Parliament granted powers to the Secretary of State to introduce new water fluoridation schemes. The scheme is supported by local authorities in the region and the water company has experience of operating fluoridation schemes.

The planning consultation will last 12 weeks, and the decision will be published after all the feedback is gathered.