Durban will ask the national government to delay the implementation of a controversial law forcing all South Africans to drink artificially fluoridated water.
The decision was reached at a meeting of the metro council’s executive committee on Tuesday.
Fluoride is added to drinking water supplies in several countries in an effort to reduce tooth decay, but there has been growing opposition in many parts of the world to the addition of fluoride because of evidence of serious health problems and discoloured teeth in communities with fluoride-rich water.
Locally, fears have been expressed by water utility companies that the annual R30-million cost of adding fluoride is not cost-effective and will delay efforts to connect poor communities to piped water.
Nevertheless, a health department directive compels all water providers to register immediately in terms of the new fluoride regulations which come into effect in September next year.
The regulations allow for water providers to apply for exemptions in certain circumstances – but do not allow the public the choice of rejecting fluoride for health reasons.
Last year, councillor Michael Graaf of the eThekwini Ecopeace party called on the Durban Metro council to reject the health department regulations because of the lack of democratic debate over the fluoride controversy.
He said his party did not believe fluoride was necessarily beneficial to the population and that there were other methods to protect people’s teeth without the risk of dangerous side effects.
At a meeting of the council’s executive committee on Tuesday, Durban water services chief Neil Macleod said city residents were invited to comment on the fluoride regulations last year and an overwhelming majority of the 450 respondents had opposed compulsory fluoridation.
Although council was not permitted to reject the regulations on the basis of public opinion, it was possible for Durban to request a delay on the basis that drinking water fluoride levels might be sufficient already.
This was because water utilities upstream from Durban would add fluoride artificially to water and once this water returned to the downstream river catchments of Durban it might contain sufficient levels to meet government regulations.
If Umgeni Water added further doses of fluoride to Durban’s water, it might lead to “over-dosing”.
Deputy mayor Logie Naidoo said South Africa should be cautious about damaging its international reputation of having high-quality tap water.
He also cautioned that compulsory fluoridation might push up costs.
Durban industries such as Amalgamated Beverage Industries (Coca Cola) and SA Breweries, because of the possible need to remove fluoride during process operations.
Graaf argued that council should raise political objections to the government’s fluoride move.
Mayor Obed Mlaba supported the call for a delay in implementation, citing possible legal implications, health and public consultation issues.
Last year, Durban water quality chemist Tony Bailey warned councillors that fluoride was more toxic than lead, and excessive levels had been linked to serious health risks, including cancer, birth defects, bone and kidney disease.
“If only a few (or even one) of the health risks are positively linked to water fluoridation, we must ask ourselves: Is fluoride worth the risk?”