WHEN southeast Queenslanders turn on their taps in the new year, most will be drinking fluoridated water for the first time – 40 years after the rest of Australia.
Currently, fewer than 5 per cent of Queenslanders drink fluoridated water – it was introduced in Townsville in 1964 – by far the lowest of any state or territory. And Queenslanders have the worst teeth in the nation.
Premier Anna Bligh took the bold decision in December last year, soon after taking over from Peter Beattie and following years of inaction by previous state governments. Until then, it was left to local councils to add fluoride to water supplies.
“I know it’s controversial out there, but I think it’s something that will leave a very long legacy for better dental health for our children,” Ms Bligh said in an interview in September.
The $35 million program will give 95 per cent of Queenslanders access to fluoridated water by 2012. Five major water treatment plants in southeast Queensland are being equipped to add fluoride powder, at a rate of 0.6-0.8 milligrams per litre, to the region’s drinking water.
Devices in the fluoridation units constantly measure the final concentration of fluoride in the water.
If there is any variation from the set dose, the device automatically shuts down the system. The treated water will then go into reservoirs before it is reticulated to residents’ homes.
Over the next four years, the rest of the state will gradually go through the same process.
For health professionals, the move can’t come soon enough.
Queensland’s Chief Health Officer, Jeannette Young, said the delay in adding fluoride to the state’s drinking water had left Queenslanders with terrible teeth.
“Unfortunately, our dental health is appalling in this state, despite our Government spending the most per head of population on oral healthcare,” Dr Young told The Australian.
She said fluoridation should bring a 40 per cent improvement in the oral health of Queenslanders.
“I personally think fluoridation is one of the top public health decision of the past 100 years,” Dr Young said.
The Australian Dental Association in Queensland has campaigned since 1953 for the move.
Its president, John Wills, said the reluctance of some Queenslanders to fluoridate began with sheep farmers, who tapped into bore water.
“In certain areas of Queensland, there’s a very high fluoride level in the bore water which caused skeletal problems in the sheep,” Dr Wills said. “They made the extrapolation that all fluoride was dangerous and have resisted it ever since.”