Putting fluoride into the water in Stockton could help “level up” the health of the town’s teeth, councillors have heard.

Health representatives have made the case for the “magic” of water fluoridation to reduce tooth decay and improve oral health without harmful effects. They say it is a “win-win” to improve oral health, especially in deprived areas.

Public health chiefs had already “thrown everything” at the problem and still saw children with repeated infections and risks of abscesses and life-threatening septicaemia, the Tees Valley joint health scrutiny committee was told. However there was talk of opposition to the idea of water fluoridation.

Dr Kamini Shah, dental public health consultant for NHS England, said: “Jaw-dropping killer fact here – 134 extractions in a single day for children, 15 children having a general anaesthetic. That is the scale of the problem we’re talking about.

“When I used to practice just down the road in Middlesbrough, this is what I used to see in kiddies’ mouth, a mouth full of caries (tooth decay). Every time I saw that it really used to pull on my heart strings.

“Generally it was a child that was about three to four coming in. That was their first experience of the dentist, in pain with sleepless nights, and mum used to say, ‘What can I do?’ I suppose what really got to me was, this didn’t need to happen.

“You talk about the magic of Christmas. Let me share with you the magic of fluoridation.”

She told how Middlesbrough had worse oral health than the national average, while Stockton had better, in 2022. She said tooth decay was clearly linked to deprivation, with large differences in decay figures between the most and least deprived areas.

“The scale of that difference in some areas in Stockton can be as much as a tenfold difference,” added Dr Shah. But the gaps did not apply in Hartlepool, which has natural water fluoridation.

“So what fluoridation’s doing, the magic that it brings, it has the greatest effect with those that most need it. It’s creating more of a level playing field. It’s levelling up,” said Dr Shah.

“It is a most cost-effective oral health intervention in terms of reducing dental decay rates. And it gets better the longer you have it. It reduces dental caries by 25 per cent in the most deprived.”

Professor Peter Kelly, regional director of the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities and Public Health North-east and Yorkshire, said: “There are about 420 children a year having general anaesthetic on Teesside. Probably 400 of those are avoidable.

“That’s an awful lot of children we put through an awful lot of very difficult procedures. I’m not saying we would avoid all of them but we can certainly significantly reduce that number.

“I’ve been lobbying for this for 20 years. I think this is a really important public health intervention.

“It helps everybody because it actually lowers the overall level of dental decay in the population, especially children. It helps those children who are in the hardest social circumstances the most. So this is a win-win across the population.

“It’s preventative, it works fast. You’ll get an impact as soon as the water fluoridation is in our tap water. You’ll notice a change in three to five years in terms of rates coming down.

“Fluoridation is not a panacea to eliminate dental decay. It significantly reduces dental decay.

“There will be fewer children at risk. This will improve children’s oral health, particularly the poorest children, a lot.”

He welcomed the government’s support of expanding community water fluoridation, saying it was “convinced of the case” and had set aside funding. He said a 12-week consultation was expected to be held in the new year before seeking final ministerial approval, with costs to be picked up by the Department of Health and Social Care.

He added: “It’s very important that we achieve consensus across the North East. We have overwhelming consensus in the dental community. The NHS supports this, medical directors support this and actually we’ve had support from parents and communities.”

Councillor Lynn Hall said: “There is some opposition out there to it. It’s about putting something universally in our water system. Many residents are not particularly happy with it.

“Hartlepool has had fluoridation for a very long time in its system, but yet still there are problems there. In Stockton we’re doing particularly well on the educational side and all the other measures. I do welcome the consultation.”

Prof Kelly said: “There’s already stuff added to the water you drink in your taps. We keep it clean. We actually add, for safety reasons, chemicals to very common things we consume.

“If you’re still going to have children who have a can of Coke full sugar by their bedside, fluoridated water won’t stop them getting caries, however it will reduce the severity. The statistics tell us very quickly that over a population basis it does reduce harm.”

He added even with education programmes children aged four to seven were having several decayed teeth removed. He added: “The patient groups which dentists have worked with tell me parents would really support this. They see the suffering their children went through.”

Dr Shah said 70 per cent supported fluoridation in a North East survey, adding: “With the best will in the world, we’ve thrown everything at it. Every public health intervention we can do, we have done in Stockton. We’ve still got this persistent inequality.”

Asked about side-effects of fluoridation, Prof Kelly said there was “zero evidence of any harm” in Newcastle, Gateshead or Northumberland and “no reported effects whatsoever to my knowledge” in Hartlepool.

He added: “We’re expecting a very significant response to the consultation. I’m not going to hide the fact there was a very, very small but very vociferous group of people that don’t like this idea, the same with vaccinations.”