Fight over fluoride reignited

Last updated 05:00 26/01/2014

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The war over fluoride in our drinking water is heating up, with a crucial court decision due and lobby groups upping the ante against health officials.

A judge is expected to rule this week on whether South Taranaki District Council had the authority to introduce fluoride to two of its water systems which could remove the power of local authorities around the country to add nutrients to water supplies.

The NZ Health Trust, which claims fluoride is a form of mass medication, is likely to take the fight to the Appeal Court if the decision doesn't go in its favour.

Meanwhile, Kapiti, north of Wellington, has become the latest council to agree to public consultation on fluoride this year, following a vociferous campaign there.

Kapiti's decision follows three referenda last year in other parts of the country. Fluoride campaigners say they plan to target more councils this year.

The Fluoride Action Network (FAN) is bringing an international campaigner, Dr Paul Connett, author of 50 Reasons to Oppose Fluoridation, to New Zealand next month to give several public talks.

In what appears to be a pre-emptive strike, the Auckland district health boards have organised a media briefing to address the "concerns, myths, and misinformation" surrounding the subject this week. They refused to give the Star-Times their reasons for scheduling the briefing, except to say that it was "timely".

Government-funded dentists and researchers have refused to engage in another forum, organised by a new anti-fluoride group started by a dentist who claims there has been insufficient research conducted into the benefits of the nutrient. The vast majority of dentists support water fluoridation, however, and say the consequences would be costly and potentially dangerous if the anti-fluoride campaigners succeed.

"Particularly in areas where the school dental service had reduced as well . . . if it goes hand-in-hand with the removal of fluoride it can be extremely detrimental," said Whakatane-based dentist John Twaddle, the former president of the Waikato/Bay of Plenty branch of the Dental Association.

"When you're dealing with it at the coalface you can see the benefits. And to be honest, we don't have the dental manpower to cope with the amount of decay if they took fluoride out."

Whakatane was one of three areas that considered removing it last year. Currently, 23 of New Zealand's 67 councils fluoridate, representing around 46 per cent of the population. Auckland, Dunedin and Wellington are all fluoridated. Christchurch is not. Hamilton was until last year, when its council voted to remove it. In a referendum following a public outcry the public voted 70 per cent in favour of fluoride, but the council is awaiting the High Court decision before reintroducing it.

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Fluoride was introduced into New Zealand municipal water supplies in the 1960s, but since 2010, four councils have stopped it: Far North, Taumarunui-Ruapehu, New Plymouth and Central Hawke's Bay, largely due to public consultations pushed by anti-fluoride groups.

FAN head Mary Byrne said the issue should be a matter of public choice, not dictated by the Ministry of Health. It was wrong to spend public money on it when there was "no proof" fluoride was effective, she said. "What we need is open discussion. It's not right for district health boards to spend money engaging in PR campaigns, they should be engaging in information campaigns."

Last year the Waikato District Health Board spent $47,000 defending fluoridation. The legal bill in the South Taranaki case is believed to be similar.

Wellington dentist Stan Litras, who formed the Fluoride Information Network for Dentists six months ago after deciding there was not enough research available to support fluoride, said government scientists couldn't back up their own policies. "If they were confident that the science indicated fluoride was beneficial and safe they would leap at an opportunity . . . to show people that opposing views were ill-founded," he said.

Otago University fluoride expert Dr Jonathan Broadbent disagreed. "If they're talking about scientific debate, that happens in scientific journals. There, the literature is very conclusive on the fact that community water fluoridation is safe and effective."

He said the anti-fluoride lobby bullied councils into a cycle of re-litigation, which pushed them to remove fluoride. "The dental researchers don't have an organised campaign to harass city councils to keep fluoride in water, whereas the anti side does. But if they want to know the evidence they can come and speak to us."

The ministry recommends water fluoridation as a safe, effective and affordable way to prevent and reduce tooth decay. It supported councils wanting to introduce fluoride and provided advice to those considering removing it. There have been calls for the Government to make a call on fluoride, but the issue is not on its agenda.

- Sunday Star Times

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