Four months of preparation and four days of hearings drew an unprecedented level of public and professional input to the Hamilton tribunal on water system fluoridation.
City councillors deserve thanks and congratulations for their robust fact-finding and thoughtful votes – for and against.
But despite HCC’s exhaustive review of the controversial practice of adding hydrofluorosilicic acid to the city’s drinking water, a chorus of disgruntled fluoride supporters has continued to agitate.
The refusal of boosters to accept that scientific research and public attitudes on mass fluoridation have advanced since 1967, combined with their near-hysterical response to an impeccable council process, shows how sound local decision-making on difficult issues can be undermined.
Shortly after the fluoride decision, the conservative provincial press, which had failed to provide regular, substantive tribunal coverage of the hearings proceedings, woke up and handed the loud hailer to disappointed pro-fluoride reps. On talkback, where hot-button issues are oxygen, the HCC decision was milked for everything it was worth.
Among the commentators, Justice Minister Judith Collins deserves a lengthy sentence for exceptionally bad judgment. Collins attacked HCC Crs Martin Gallagher, Pippa Mahood and Ewan Wilson – all members of the Waikato District Health Board as well – for declaring their obvious conflicts of interest and stepping down from the tribunal as common sense and legal advice dictated.
With the DHB the main presenter for fluoridation, their participation would have exposed any tribunal vote to expensive legal challenge and almost certain annulment. Collins needs a law school refresher and a look through the Local Government Act.
At HCC headquarters, Wilson and Gallagher donned their DHB jerseys in what looks like an early re-election publicity stunt. The pair declared the tribunal a flawed process and demanded a public referendum instead (at a cost to ratepayers of up to $140,000).
But on December 11 in a full council meeting, it was none other than Gallagher who seconded a motion favouring the tribunal process as the best decision-making option. Gallagher and Wilson then joined in a unanimous council resolution to proceed with the tribunal, instead of a referendum. When the tribunal unexpectedly failed to deliver their preferred result, the self-interested DHB-HCC duo called foul.
In advice to HCC, the tribunal option was endorsed by the crown research Institute of Environmental Science and Research and the chief of staff to the Prime Minister’s chief science advisor.
With their tribunal vote flip-flop last week, Wilson and Gallagher prove why elected officials should serve either city council or the DHB – but not both.
The pair, each seeking another double-dip term come October, enjoy a $27,000 pay packet for their DHB board slots. Gallagher managed to miss fully a quarter of his eligible meetings, despite collecting his pay, according to the DHB’s most recent published report.
Wilson, who touts his supposed “leadership skills”, also owes the thousands of Hamiltonians who oppose fluoridation a personal apology for crassly describing them as “nutters”.
Across the Waikato, however, Thames-Coromandel District Council may have quietly put a stake into the heart of New Zealand’s decades-old fluoridation policy. In a letter to the Ministry of Health last week, TCDC chief executive David Hammond requested “an unequivocal assurance that fluoridation has no health effects on any of council’s population at any time”.
Fluoride is cited in numerous authoritative medical studies as a potential risk factor in a range of serious disorders, including heart and kidney disease, thyroid damage and skeletal fluorosis.
Fluoride in water has also been associated with potential neurological disruption and impaired cognitive development. The elderly and infants are particularly vulnerable risk populations.
Given the scientific literature on health risks, there is no way the MOH can offer the “unequivocal assurance” sought by TCDC.
Lacking such assurance, councils could face serious increased liability.
The TCDC letter and its likely response may well underpin council decisions to stop fluoridation not only in Thames, but nationwide.
With expert opinion divided on the risks and benefits of fluoridated water and inexpensive alternatives readily available on supermarket shelves, forced medication of the entire Hamilton population had to stop.
HCC’s decision frees up $40,000, currently pouring down city drains each year, for expanded oral hygiene education. Instead of protesting, the Waikato DHB and its politically-programmed medical officers of health need to get on board.
Having spent thousands of dollars in staff time unsuccessfully promoting water supply fluoridation, the board should respect the tribunal decision and expand its own education programmes.
With a bit of effort, Hamilton can have fluoridation-free dental statistics everyone can be smiling about.
Geoffrey Robinson and Reihana Robinson comment regularly on local government, public policy, and environmental issues.