Fluoridation of Britain's drinking water could be extended to millions of extra consumers under plans being drawn up by the Government.

Fluoridation of Britain's drinking water could be extended to millions of extra consumers under plans being drawn up by the Government.

The move is being considered as a way of cutting the high rates of tooth decay among children in deprived neighbourhoods. But campaigners opposed to it say too much fluoride can cause teeth to become mottled and the mineral may also cause cancer, brittle bones and thyroid disease.

About 11 per cent of the population – six million people – have fluoride added to their water, mainly in the Midlands and the North-east. Fluoride occurs naturally in all water supplies and in some areas, such as Hartlepool, levels are high enough to protect teeth.

Responsibility for deciding whether to add fluoride to drinking water currently rests with the water companies. Over the past decade, they have turned down scores of requests from health authorities to do so because of fears of legal action by anti-fluoridation groups.

In 1998, the water companies called for a change in the law to hand the responsibility to health authorities. Water UK, which represents the water companies, delighted campaigners and medical bodies by suggesting the decision should be taken on medical rather than commercial grounds, after public consultation.

Five years later, ministers are reported to be preparing to make the move through amendments to the Water Bill, to be introduced later this month. A letter obtained by a Sunday newspaper signed by Health and Environment ministers says that opponents of the move are in a minority and would "be able to use water filters that remove fluoride and buy bottled drinking water".

Even though fluoride toothpaste protects teeth, the letter – addressed to John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister and chairman of the domestic affairs cabinet committee – says the move is necessary: "It is much harder to establish regular toothbrushing in deprived areas because of the costs of toothpaste and perhaps because of the less ordered life-styles lived by families."

Cabinet members are expected to be allowed a free vote on the issue.

Sir Iain Chalmers, an epidemiologist and former director of the Cochrane Centre, said: "I started off as a fluoridationist but it wasn't until I looked at the evidence that I realised how thin it was. I became very uncertain both of the safety and efficacy of fluoride."

A spokesman for the Health Department declined to comment on the leaked letter but said: "No area would be expected to fluoridate without having undertaken a proper consultation which estab- lished that the measure was strongly supported."

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