Hamilton needs Dr Google out of fluoride debate

22:22, Jan 26 2014

Breakfast my house when I was growing up was a boiled egg, toast soldiers, a glass of orange juice - and a fluoride tablet.

We lived in Christchurch, which as most people know is the only major city in New Zealand that doesn't have fluoride added to its water supply (sorry Hamilton).

My mum, a dental technician by training, had seen too many rotten teeth in her time and we kids had no choice but to pop the little white pill. Consequently, my brothers and I have very good teeth.

Pretty simple, you'd think. The link between fluoride and healthy, strong pearly whites is irrefutable. More than 60 years of medical research has concluded overwhelmingly that fluoride, in low doses ranging from 0.7 to 1.4 mg, combats tooth decay.

If you don't believe me, ask your dentist. Or any public health official in this country or any other of the 30-odd nations around the world that add fluoride to the municipal water supply.

And yet, for reasons unfathomable to me, the debate about whether fluoride should be added to our water continues to rage - and even, to intensify. As I write, science and logic are battling the anti-fluoride brigade in Hamilton, South Taranaki, and Dunedin.


Hamilton's city council got hijacked by anti-fluoridation activists last year, and resolved to ditch the chemical from its water without asking the public. Following an outcry by medical experts and the good people of Hamilton a referendum was held, in which 70 per cent of the population voted for fluoride to be put back in.

The council is still prevaricating, however, awaiting the outcome of a court case in New Plymouth over fluoride.

South Taranaki District Council wants to add it to its water supply, having some of the worst dental decay among its teens of anywhere in New Zealand.

Yet Christchurch-based 'New Health New Zealand', an oxymoron if ever there was one, has taken the council to the High Court, arguing - and I am not making this up - that it is a breach of the Bill of Rights Act for the council to try to raise the standard of dental health in its community.

It seems unthinkable the High Court could do anything but throw this case out. If you're going to argue that fluoride is forced medication, you might as well sue your council for adding chlorine to kill bacteria as well.

The anti-fluoride mob appears to be on a roll, though, convincing New Plymouth to remove fluoride from its water supply in 2011 after some 40 years. Southland also wavered before deciding to carry on with fluoride.

Dunedin recently lowered its fluoride dosage from 0.85mg to 0.75mg, a move that will make no difference to public health whatsoever but shows how local body representatives can be pressured by a vocal minority

Anti-fluoride campaigners specialise in selectively quoting from exhaustive medical research and using scare tactics to alarm the general public. They love to point out that fluoride is a "highly toxic substance" without mentioning that most chemicals are, given high enough concentrations, including chlorine, alcohol, paracetamol and many food additives - even the iodine in your table salt is lethal in pure doses of more than 2.5g.It's as if, after producing a generation with the healthiest teeth in our history, we've all become so complacent we no longer think it matters.

Next month, American anti-fluoride campaigner Paul Connett, who claims we're poisoning bottle-fed babies with fluoride, arrives on a national speaking tour funded by the Fluoride Action Network. In retaliation, the Auckland District Health Board is mobilising its own team of public health scientists to brief the media on the safety of fluoride and its effectiveness in the prevention of tooth decay.

How did we get to the point, in 2014, where claims are made with a straight face that fluoride causes Aids, Alzheimer's, cancer, arthritis, and low IQ? When one American anti-fluoride website can claim that fluoride "harms black babies"? When parents are worried their children are being poisoned?

The anti-fluoride argument, I believe, is part of a world-wide trend towards mistrust of science and medical intervention that has been slowly building since the 1970s. Even rigorously tested and widely approved treatments are now viewed with scepticism. The worldwide increase in measles, after years in remission, is almost solely due to an increased refusal of parents to vaccinate their children against the disease.

Polio, nearly wiped out almost a century ago, surged after two countries in particular - Nigeria and India - began to refuse to immunise against it.

Public hysteria has become even easier to whip up since the advent of what health professionals call "Dr Google". It's easy to find the most outlandish claims about fluoride at the click of a mouse, most of them either total bunk or taken hopelessly out of context.

The only proven side-effect of excess fluoride is fluorosis, or the almost imperceptible white marks left on the teeth of some children. The world's dental fraternity has decreed fluorosis is a cosmetic problem rather than a public health issue, and yet the anti-fluoride brigade carries on as if it's a disease that could claim your first-born.

The US Centre for Disease Control has listed water fluoridation as one of the 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century. That we could consider rolling back the clock on something so profoundly beneficial beggars belief. It's a travesty that authorities must devote time and money to relitigate public health battles that were won a long time ago.

The anti-fluoride campaigners should find something else to do with the time on their hands - perhaps, as Dunedin's Mayor Dave Cull suggested last week, an investigation into alien abduction. At least they'd do less damage.