Water fluoridation is set to become a national election issue, according to a long-time Timaru anti-fluoride campaigner.

Debate over the controversial issue was reignited in South Canterbury when the South Canterbury District Health Board’s (SCDHB) community and public health committee voted to recommend a position statement supporting fluoridation to the full board.

The move led to calls for the Timaru District Council to re-examine the issue, much to the concern of anti-fluoride activist Imelda Hitchcock.

Hitchcock led the charge to have fluoride removed from the Timaru water supply 30 years ago, and she was urging the community to take a stand again if water fluoridation was put back on the table.

She blamed fluoride for causing a bowel problem which vanished while staying in a non-fluoridated area in 1974.

Spending hours researching and sending endless letters to the newspapers, Hitchcock built a groundswell of support for her view that fluoride was dangerous to humans and should not be added to the water supply. Fluoride was a poison, she said.

She was calling for people opposed to water fluoridation to start petitioning their local councillors and MPs.

She believed opposition to fluoridation would be even stronger now than it was in 1985, when fluoride was removed from the water supply.

“People are more aware about chemicals now.

“The younger people, they’ve been taught to think more for themselves, and they just have to object to these sorts of things.”

She believed fluoridation could become an important election issue if responsibility for fluoridation was handed over to central government.

Any government that tried to introduce fluoridation would “not last very long”, she said.

“People just won’t have it. They just don’t want it.”

South Canterbury’s three district mayors all believed believed central government needed to “front up” and take responsibility for the issue, as local councils did not have the expertise to make a decision.

Their position was backed by opposition politicians, with both Labour and the Greens throwing their support behind the proposal to have the Ministry of Health or DHBs take over responsibility for fluoridation.

A dedicated letter-writing campaign had been a big part of anti-fluoride movements in the past, and Hitchcock was keen to see that happen again in South Canterbury.

The issue had become a big talking point in Timaru.

Hitchcock’s phone had been ringing constantly with people wanting to discuss the issue with her, she said.

Dozens of South Cantabrians also contacted Stuff last week to express their views, with public opinion overwhelmingly against the addition of fluoride to the water supply.

However, there was some support for fluoridation.

Helen Rinaldi said she strongly backed putting fluoride back in the water.

“I grew up in an area where it was not in the water supply and my parents gave us all a small fluoride tablet every morning.

“My father was a GP and strongly believed the benefits outweighed the disadvantages.”

Timaru dentist Mark Goodhew also wanted pressure to be put on the council to re-examine fluoridation.

Fluoride was the most cost-effective way to improve the district’s poor oral health, he said.

“There are people who dispute the evidence, but I think it’s pretty clear.

“They’re arguing that their right to drink water fluoridated at very low levels is more important than the right of our community to have better oral health.”

The Ministry of Health recommended between 0.7 parts per million and 1.0 ppm of fluoride as a safe, effective, and efficient way of preventing dental caries in communities receiving a reticulated water supply.