The lack of fluoride in Wellington’s water supply for 10 months will cause “pain and suffering” as people suffer from tooth decay, a dental expert says.
Wellington Water refused to divulge when it first knew about the fluoride problems during a public meeting on Friday morning, which was livestreamed.
Regulatory services director Charles Barker began to answer a question about dates and share the timeline, but was cut off by chief executive Colin Crampton, who said the details should be left to an independent inquiry.
In a last-minute Thursday night media briefing, Wellington Water chairperson Lynda Carroll announced that the water authority had given the public and the media incorrect information about fluoridation problems in the region’s water supply.
There had been no fluoride in Wellington’s water supply for between four and 10 months, rather than the one month that the authority had announced earlier this week.
Before that, fluoride levels were inconsistent for four years. Wellington Water, which manages the network, is still collating the data and cannot confirm when fluoride levels were last correct or what the fluoride levels have been over the past four years.
Dr Rob Beaglehole, from the New Zealand Dental Association, said they were “shocked and appalled” at the news, which would have a “major impact” on oral health.
Carroll said the board was “extremely disappointed” when they received the new information. Wellington Water has commissioned an independent inquiry into the fluoridation issues, appointing Doug Martin of consultancy firm Martin Jenkins to lead it.
The water treatment plant at Te Marua Island – usually supplying Upper Hutt, Manor Park, Stokes Valley, Porirua and the western suburbs of Wellington – stopped fluoridating in May last year. The water treatment plant at Gear Island – usually supplying Wellington’s business district and southern and eastern suburbs – stopped fluoridating in November.
Beaglehole said dentists were “extremely concerned about the lack of fluoride standards around the country” and had concerns about fluoridation levels in all regions.
“It might take around a year to show clinical effects, but within months a lack of fluoride will negatively affect teeth,” he said.
People should not rinse their mouths after brushing their teeth with fluoride toothpaste, to increase the amount of fluoride on their teeth, Beaglehole said.
Within the Wellington region, 1000 children had been hospitalised with general anaesthetic to remove decayed teeth in the past year. This “pain and suffering” would increase in the future if water was not fluoridated, he said.
Jonathan Broadbent, associate professor at the University of Otago’s dentistry school, said the lack of fluoride was “concerning”.
Frequent, low-concentration fluoride lowered the risk of tooth decay and protected teeth so a lack of fluoride would affect “anyone with teeth”, he said.
Because tooth decay is a chronic disease, the effects of consuming less fluoride would not show until future years, where there could be “a blip” in statistics.
“This is the sort of thing the dental health profession should have been made aware of earlier. Particularly for our colleagues in community oral health services, this would change the way they manage care for children,” Broadbent said.
He said his research suggested problems with meeting the fluoride target were not confined to Wellington.
The current target for councils is to meet the correct fluoridation level 90 per cent of the time.
Advice from the Capital and Coast District Health Board said that everyone should continue to brush their teeth with fluoride toothpaste twice a day and avoid sugary foods and drinks.
Wellington Water is owned by the councils in the region, but councillors were not informed about the incorrect information ahead of the media briefing.
Wellington City Councillor Fleur Fitzsimons said the delay in telling residents was “unacceptable”.
“The key question for me is what culture exists within Wellington Water that says it’s acceptable not to provide important public health information to residents immediately? The review must also get to the bottom of how these failures occurred and focus on getting fluoride back into our water supply fast,” she said.