Fluoride Action Network

Hamilton. Fluoride debate: the mass medication battle

Source: Waikato Times | September 15th, 2014 | By Tom O
Location: New Zealand

OPINION: Recent political controversy indicates we rightly expect high standards of performance from our parliamentarians.

We also expect our local government councillors to resolve complex problems and decide between battling community factions with equally high standards, empathy and wisdom.

Some of these decisions are relatively straight forward and require only courage and reliable information to get right.

Others, like the vexed and often emotional issue of fluoride in reticulated waters supplies, will confound the wisdom of Confucius and Solomon combined.

Not only is there no easy answer, there is no answer to allay the genuine concerns of people on both sides of the debate.

The decision of the lobby group Safe Water Alternative NZ to withdraw a legal challenge to the reintroduction of fluoride to the Hamilton City water supply brings an end to one such battle but probably not the war against mass medication.

In March this year the Hamilton City Council resolved to reintroduce fluoride to the water supply following almost a year of controversy and opposing argument.

Supporters of fluoride claim the addition of the chemical to everyone’s water will help prevent tooth decay in young people and so save, what is left of our once world-class welfare state, significant costs in the future from those who neglect their childrens’ teeth.

There is some truth to that argument as New Zealanders of today, for reasons which are still not well understood, have one of the worst records of dental health in the world.

In early colonial times young Maori, like most Polynesians were noted for their sound and attractive teeth.

High levels of seafood in the diet is thought to have been a factor before fern root and other abrasive foods created other problems.

Today sugar in the national fast food diet and the loss of the school dental nurse service no doubt contribute to the problem.

A number of dental and health experts from throughout the world have provided compelling evidence to support the argument for fluoride in everyone’s water.

Opposition to fluoride is more than an objection to mass medication on principle.

Opponents claim the chemical poses significant health risks and, like the dental lobby, have presented impressive evidence to support their contention.

They also say, with some justification, that fluoride for those who want it, is readily available in tooth paste and tablet form at little cost without the need or cost involved to impose it on every one.

This is not the first time mass medication has been introduced in New Zealand.

Iodine deficiency, as a cause for goitre, was discovered in the early 1900s and to address the problem table salt was iodised at up to 80mg of iodine per kilogram of salt in 1938.

This was accompanied by an extensive public education programme and there was always un-iodised salt as an alternative for those who objected.

There appear to be no practical alternatives for those who object to fluoride.

There is the possibility of installing rain water tanks or buying bottled water for drinking but both come with a cost as well as major practical and resource consent impediments.

Faced with firmly entrenched opposing opinions the city council took the only intelligent option and asked the residents to decide the matter and two thirds of those who responded to a public referendum opted for fluoride to be reintroduced.

However, lay people having the democratic right to decide complex health issues, does not come with the automatic wisdom to get it right.

History is awash with expert and majority decisions which later proved to be tragic and the thalidomide story is one of many.

While the opponents to fluoride have withdrawn from the field for financial reasons rather than a change of mind and they will, without a doubt, return to the conflict at the next opportunity and so the war will drag on.

In the meantime all sides should hope that, at some future date, new evidence is not found of tragic side effects which we have yet to discover.