The excessively broad risk of personal liability for municipal councillors and staff in the Ontario Safe Drinking Water Act was supposed to improve public health and safety, but could it do the opposite, by frightening individuals into making poor public policy decisions? Opponents of fluoridation have started to threaten councillors with personal liability for fluoridated water, in the hope of changing municipal policy on water treatment. The province created this problem, and they should fix it.
For example, a group called Concerned Residents of Peel to End Fluoridation recently told Peel Region councillors that fluoridated water creates a significant health risk for which they could be personally liable. The group claims that fluoridation of drinking water violates:
- Section 7 of Charter because the harm is disproportionate to benefits.
- Ontario’s Safe Drinking Water Act and
- Federal Food and Drugs Act
In essence, the group claims that fluoridation causes harm to human health without reducing tooth decay which, they claim, would be better controlled with fluoridated toothpaste. They claim that the worldwide practice of fluoridating drinking water is based on outdated and poorly understood science, and should be stopped.
We are in no position to evaluate the scientific controversy that the group raises. But if there is a valid scientific argument for changing the practice, surely it can be raised and carefully considered without threatening the individual councillors of a specific municipality with personal liability. The decision whether or not to fluoridate drinking water is an important question of public policy and of scientific interpretation, not of malfeasance or negligence by individual councillors. In fact, it’s really a question for Health Canada, not for any particular municipality to resolve.
By all means, governments should periodically reevaluate all the contaminants in municipal drinking water, including chlorine and fluoride. But, in my view, section 19 of the Safe Drinking Water Act should be amended so that it cannot be used to threaten individual councillors into taking any particular scientific decision contrary to the advice of their staff. The province created the opportunity for this abuse, and they should fix it.
Peel Region Council voted to defer a move to reopen the issue until September, when the region’s legal staff will present an opinion on Hasan’s arguments.