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From Chlorination to Fluoridation: The water purity campaign in Vancouver, 1939-1968

Fri, April 12, 10:30am to 12:00pm, Hyatt Regency Columbus, Union B


The post-war introduction of fluoridation in North American cities raised fundamental questions about democracy, purity, health and the role of the state. While many public health organizations sought to promote the benefits of fluoridation for dental hygiene, critics objected to it as a potential threat to water purity and human health, as evidence of an industrial society out of touch with its organic foundations, and as driven by an over-reaching state. While environmental and health historians have considered the fluoridation debate as a public health controversy, informed by perceptions of risk, organicism, liberty and anti-statism, few have linked this debate with previous public controversies over chlorination. In most large North American cities, the chlorination of public water supplies long preceded fluoridation, sometimes by half a century. Environmental historians have noted that while some consumers objected to the taste of chlorination, the reception of this form of water treatment caused little controversy.
In Vancouver, Canada, however, chlorination and fluoridation were closely linked. Unlike most North American cities, Vancouver only chlorinated its water supply starting in the Second World War, and then over the strenuous objections of local politicians, water engineers and the press, who accepted a federal order to chlorinate only as a wartime precaution. Advocates of Vancouver’s water purity raised many of the arguments that would later characterize the fluoridation debate in the post-war era. The parallels between these public controversies raise important questions about the reception of water treatment and public health campaigns in North America. This outlier case suggests that the post-war concerns that arose over fluoridation had earlier foundations and that environmental historians should look more closely at the original reception of chlorination to test the ‘quest for pure water’ narrative that characterizes much of the historiography.