Adding fluoride to Christchurch’s water supplies is expected to cost over $60 million – and ratepayers will likely have to fund most of it.
Upgrading infrastructure is also expected to take a minimum of three years and eight months, and cost at least $2.5 million each year to run.
It is unclear when work is likely to start.
Decision-making power over fluoridating water has been taken away from councils and now lies with the Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield.
In November, Bloomfield told councils to start preparing to add fluoride to water supplies that do not have it.
Christchurch is the largest New Zealand city without fluoride in water.
This week, Christchurch City Council staff told councillors in a closed-door briefing the newly estimated cost to set up fluoridation was $63m.
That figure includes a provision for 12 per cent cost escalation and a 30 per cent contingency. The council has described setting up fluoride as “complex and costly”.
The $63m figure does not include the operational costs of fluoridation – which council staff estimate to be $1.8m a year.
The council said it would also need to spend another $1.1 million a year for upkeep of the infrastructure.
These costs are far more than a rough estimate made by the council five years ago – when set up costs were between $10m and $20m, with operating costs expected to be $500,000 to $1m annually.
The council has previously said that fluoridation would be “a relatively expensive exercise” because work has to be done at multiple pump stations, instead of one or two water sources.
During the briefing, council staff said it could take at least three years and eight months to implement fluoridation. The clock for implementation can only begin once the council has confirmed how it will fund it.
Councillor Pauline Cotter, who chairs the council’s water committee, said the council would be directed by the government to fluoridate, but this has not officially happened yet. Bloomfield has said he expects to start these directions in mid-2022.
“It’s just like this big cloud that hovers over us all the time, called the ‘powers of central Government’ these days,” Cotter said.
She said fluoridating the water was a health issue, so it should be funded by health authorities.
This is a view shared by Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel, who said earlier this month: “It’s a health issue, it’s a health decision and the funding should come from health”.
The council presently has no funds budgeted for fluoridation costs.
A spokeswoman for Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall would not answer whether any more money would be given to councils to help with fluoridation costs.
Instead, she sent a link to a March 2021 press release where Verrall said councils were responsible for the costs associated with fluoridation.
The Government has set aside $8.3m to help councils with fluoridation. Decisions on how that money is divided up have not been made.
Adding fluoride to water supplies is a measure to help prevent tooth decay – and it makes a “significant difference”, according to the Ministry of Health.
A 2016 report commissioned by the ministry found fluoridation in Canterbury could save between $106m and $318m in dental costs over 20 years – and that fluoridating during that period would only cost between $15m and $46m.
A 2020 study by public dental health researchers said the poor oral health of Canterbury children was an “ongoing paediatric health crisis”.
The paper found children living in non-fluoridated areas were 20 per cent more likely to have tooth decay.
Fluoridating water is endorsed by the Canterbury District Health Board, NZ Dental Association, Paediatric Society of NZ, and the Office of the Children’s Commissioner.
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* What is water fluoridation and how does it work?
* Dentists praise fluoridation call; Christchurch councillors want to see the money