Dentists are calling for a fresh look at the fluoridation of Nelson’s water supply, with claims children’s teeth are slipping back to decay levels of the 1940s.

While fluoridation was the main concern, a worsening diet, poor oral hygiene and fewer school dental nurses were driving children’s and teenagers’ teeth back to the poor condition they were in before school dental clinics were set up, said Nelson dentists Dan McGettigan and Janette Wilcox, who is also the Nelson branch president of the New Zealand Dental Association.

Dr McGettigan said that while tooth decay in children and teenagers was not “rampant” like it was in the 1940s, it was heading that way across the country, particularly in areas with unfluoridated water, including the Nelson region.

It was a real possibility that a lot children of today would have to wear dentures by the time they were adults, Dr McGettigan said.

While fluoridation was the major concern for dentists in the Nelson region, Drs Wilcox and McGettigan said a move towards increasingly processed, high-sugar diets was also devastating to children’s and teenagers’ teeth.

People were drinking more fizzy drinks and “so-called” energy drinks were particularly harmful because the caffeine dried the mouth of saliva, which had anti-plaque properties.

Oral hygiene had not improved to attack the worsening diet.

A lot of dentists in the Nelson region were unwilling to take up the Government’s offer of free dental care for under-18s because they found the system too cumbersome and the pay inadequate. It was also treatment, rather than preventive-based, they said.

Nelson dentist Andrew Meffan backed the call for fluoridation, saying people would not accept it as normal if “one by one your fingers rotted away”, as teeth did.

Health arguments against fluoridation did not stack up as the proposed level of fluoride in Nelson was one part per million, compared with up to 30 parts per million that occurred naturally in some countries and did have health drawbacks.

Fluoride occurred naturally in Nelson water but at just one-tenth of the levels that dentists were lobbying for.

If Nelson did fluoridate its water the council should supply taps where people could fill up bottles with non-fluoridated water, he said.

Nelson Marlborough District Health Board community paediatrician Nick Baker said dental caries — the disease that leads to decay — was the most common disease for children, with nearly half having it by the age of five.

It was also the most common single cause of admission to Nelson Hospital.

Because children aged between three and eight could often not tolerate dental work it was the most common single reason why children underwent general anaesthetics in Nelson, he said.

Health board oral health clinical director Geoff Lingard said tooth decay in five-year-old children had increased slightly in the past decade, following a significant decrease in the previous 30 years.

Nelson Mayor Kerry Marshall said the issue had not been raised since the new council was elected a year ago, while Tasman Mayor Richard Kempthorne said the district council was not considering fluoridation and had not done so in at least seven years.

Fluoridation critic, Dorothy-Rose Pallesen of Nelson, said that fluoride that was added to water supplies tended to be the cheaper sodium fluoride, which was significantly worse than naturally occurring calcium fluoride.

She claimed that excessive fluoride had been shown to cripple elderly people and, aged 76, she had only ever had one tooth removed despite avoiding fluoride when possible.