A decision on fluoridating Christchurch’s water has been delayed until at least April despite calls for urgency in the face of concerns at childhood tooth decay.
The Christchurch City Council earlier said a decision about whether the Government would require the city to fluoridate would be made by the end of this year.
But now, the Ministry of Health says it will only start consideration of the decision in the second quarter of 2023.
If fluoridation is ordered in Christchurch, the city will also be given longer to put fluoride in its water supply than other areas. Other councils have been told to fluoridate before July 2024, but Christchurch will get a deadline after that because of “service delivery pressures”, the Ministry said.
July 2024 is when the Government’s Three Waters reforms are proposed to come into effect.
Water fluoridation is an effective and proven measure for reducing tooth decay. In 2020, a study found nearly 20% of 5-year-olds in Canterbury had decay.
Christchurch is the largest New Zealand city without water fluoridation and the lack of urgency to add it has dismayed dental experts. Paediatric dental surgeon Arun Natarajan said in July, “enough is enough” and “we now need to see action faster.”
Health officials estimated in 2016 that fluoridation in Canterbury could save $106m to $318m in averted dental costs over 20 years.
Councils previously wielded decision-making authority on fluoridation, but thanks to a 2021 law change the power now rests with the Ministry of Health.
In July, the Ministry directed 14 councils to start fluoridating their waterand this month, it wrote to another 27 councils to advise them that fluoridation for their area was being actively considered.
Christchurch was not one of the 14 or 27 councils contacted.
Director-General of Health Dr Diana Sarfati told the city council it was likely to hear from her again in the second quarter of 2023, when she expected “to begin active consideration of whether to issue a direction to you to fluoridate.”
Sarfati said as part of the decision-making, she would consider scientific evidence on fluoride’s effectiveness and whether the benefits outweigh the costs.
Christchurch City Council three waters boss Helen Beaumont said the council “is comfortable with this approach and the timeframe”.
The council previously said fluoridation would cost $63 million to implement in the city and $2.5m annually to operate.
Implementation is considered a “complex challenge” in Christchurch as it has a decentralised water supply system. Fluoride has to be added in 50 locations, whereas Auckland can fluoridate for four times as many people from just six locations.
The Government has said councils must pay for fluoride implementation, but Christchurch city councillors disagree.
During an April meeting, councillors unanimously said the Government should fund it.
Councillors have also asked for a face-to-face meeting with Sarfati and for officials to explain other alternatives for applying fluoride to children’s teeth.
The meeting has not yet happened. A Ministry of Health has proposed its officials meet with the council once fluoridation is being actively considered.
The ministry has not supplied the council with information about alternative options to water fluoridation, a ministry spokesperson said.
“The key benefit of fluoridating drinking-water is its potential for greater oral health gains at lower cost than other oral health interventions,” the spokesperson said.
Beaumont said she expected the information about alternative options to be on the agenda of next year’s proposed meeting.
Beaumont said new water pump stations or substantial upgrades to existing pump stations were being designed to ensure fluoride could be retrofitted “if required”.
*Original full-text article online at: https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/130526485/christchurch-water-fluoridation-decision-delayed-until-next-year