For 40 years, dental therapist Jennifer James has had the “unique experience” of treating children in Bathurst, which has fluoride in its water, and 48 kilometres away in Oberon, which doesn’t.
“The difference out here working is that you see twice as much tooth decay in children, twice as many fillings, twice as many extractions. That is a comparison we can make weekly in Bathurst and Oberon,” said Ms James, who works for NSW Health.
“What people don’t see is parents crying because they don’t understand why their children need teeth taken out.”
For Ms James, it is a clear cut case of the haves and the have-nots. Every day she sees the impact of the Oberon’s repeated decisions not to fluoridate its water supply in children’s mouths, she told a community meeting in Oberon .
Fifty years after Sydney decided to fluoridate, Oberon is once again tackling the emotional issue of whether to reverse its long-standing opposition to adding fluoride. About 97 per cent of NSW residents have access to fluoridated water.
While some areas can’t add fluoride for logistical and technical reasons, Health Minister Brad Hazzard in December urged the eight councils where fluoride could be added to reconsider.
Since then, two councils, Bega and Gunnedah, have decided to add fluoride. Some such as Byron Council didn’t reopen debate.
Oberon Council agreed to hear arguments for and against, and ask the community for its views. Although the Mayor Kathy Sajowitz supports fluoridation, she said she will be guided by the views of the community. If she doesn’t, locals told Fairfax that Ms Sajowitz – and any councillor who votes for it – will be turfed out.
In the lead up to the meeting, anti-fluoride campaigners have been letter boxing homes claiming “there were plans to put poison in your water”.
Dentists, pediatric nurses and other health professionals, including representatives from the Australian Dental Association (ADA) NSW, told the meeting fluoride had been shown to be a safe and effective way to reduce tooth decay. It was backed by the World Health Organisation, and major dental associations.
A study by the National Health and Medical Research Council found last year that it cut tooth decay by 26 per cent to 44 per cent in children, and as much as 27 per cent in adults.
Oberon doesn’t have a dentist, and the clinic operated by Ms James caters to children. Kate Miranda of the ADA NSW said adding fluoride to the water was also more equitable because it benefits everyone, regardless of incomes
Many locals were sceptical. A young community worker said most teenagers and their parents in town opposed it. “I’ve not found anything good (about fluoride) that you can get from a simple Google search.”
Melissa Jones, an Oberon resident, said the answer to tooth decay was not fluoridation, but teaching children how to brush properly and avoiding sugary drinks. Others worried about the cost.
Some residents conceded fluoride might be good for controlling tooth decay, but alleged it was a poison, and when added to the water it contained lead, arsenic and mercury.
Rosy Ward of Oberon said there “real science, real research” including papers claiming to show fluoride affected children’s IQ. “Maybe they have fabulous teeth, they didn’t say that,” she said. Fluoride was a “fairy tale”.
Claims like these were indicative of the fear mongering, half truths and misinformation used in every campaign against fluoridation, a pediatric nurse told the meeting. In her many years of reviewing pathology reports, she’d never found any evidence that someone had been poisoned by drinking fluoridated tap water.
And fluoride, like carrots and water itself, was poisonous when ingested in excessively large amounts.
The amount of fluoridation added to the water supply is about five drops a bathtub, around one part per million. A pea-sized squeeze of toothpaste contains 0.4g of fluoride, says toothpaste manufacturer Colgate.
William Fitzpatrick, who grew up in Oberon and is now in his final year of dentistry at Charles Sturt University, came home for the meeting because he had seen first hand from family and friends the experience of tooth loss and pain.
“For children, this is especially upsetting. Many in our community don’t present to the dentist for routine check ups but they present for traumatic experience for extractions,” said Mr Fitzpatrick.
When Ms James first started visiting Oberon, a dentist said to her: “Oh Jenny, all I ever do there is pull teeth out.” Four decades later, nothing had changed, she said.
Experts say not fluoridating the water supply most disadvantages the poorest in the community. While more affluent parents can afford to travel to see the dentist, Ms James said many families from Oberon would cancel their appointments in Bathurst because they couldn’t afford the petrol or the time off work.
She retires next month, and hopes that Oberon will change its mind.
“I believe every child has a right to the best dental care,” she said.