Ministers have triggered a major health row by unveiling plans to allow fluoride to be added to all drinking water in England and Wales.

Water companies will be forced to add fluoride if local health authorities order it, despite controversy over the long-term effects on health, the Government confirmed.

The authorities will have to demonstrate that the local population broadly supports such a move, which is designed to reduce dental decay.

But campaigners said they feared fluoridation would be given the green light in many parts of the country after minimal public consultation.

The policy will infuriate environmentalists and consumer groups.

Some believe fluoridation has links to cancer, Down's syndrome, infant mortality and bone damage.

Up to half of those drinking fluoridated water also suffer 'dental fluorosis' - a mottling of the teeth thought to be caused by its effects.

However, studies have shown conclusively that fluoride - similar to an ingredient in many toothpastes - cuts the amount of tooth decay in children by strengthening the enamel in growing teeth.

About one in ten people in Britain drink fluoridated water, with some water companies adding it and others refusing to.

Amendments to the Water Bill will shift responsibility for deciding to treat water away from the companies to regional strategic health authorities.

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