In a strange act of synchronicity, on the day New Zealand was announcing that our children have some of the worst teeth in the Western world the United States Environmental Protection Agency hosted a science forum on fluoridation.
It was intended to confirm the effectiveness of fluoridation. But on the day, despite an overflowing house and representatives from all the major organisations in the fluoride debate, the agency’s science advisory board was unable to find anyone – scientist or otherwise – willing to defend the practice of water fluoridation in an open public debate.
After years of rubber-stamping scientific results from industry-funded studies, the agency may now be taking a different position.
At the forum its spokesperson said that new evidence on fluoride’s toxicity needed to be examined.
While the US is slowly waking up to not only the potential dangers of fluoride but also its lack of effectiveness in reducing cavities, New Zealand is sticking to its guns.
In a letter to anti-fluoride campaigner Silvia Cole in February, the Minister of Health, Annette King, said that fluoridation of water supplies remained the most effective and socially equitable means of achieving community-wide exposure to the caries-preventive effects of fluoride.
However, when you realise that 58 per cent of our teenagers and 47 per cent of 5-year-olds have serious dental decay, this statement sounds more like a belief system than a conclusion based on science.
Clearly something has gone wrong.
According to the Dental Association executive director, David Crum, it’s the fault of parents.
He says that they’re failing nearly an entire generation of children.
Of course he’s right. It is a parent’s responsibility to ensure that children learn the basics like teeth brushing.
But you don’t go from one of the best dental health standards in the world to the present state on the backs of slack parents. Especially when for years the Ministry of Health has been claiming victory over cavities through the endorsement and administration of fluoride.
Rather, the reason for our soaring cavity rates might just be the dismantling of the school dental therapy system.
In its heyday the service provided comprehensive and regular care to all children regardless of their economic situation.
And the reason for its demise? Callum Durwood, the dental surgeon who co-chairs the School and Community Dental Services Forum, was quoted as saying that dental therapist numbers have been reduced because, with fluoride, the need wasn’t there.
Under this misguided notion we’ve lost hundreds of dental therapists and, even though dental care is still free to children under 18, just finding a dentist willing to work for the $24 flat fee the Government pays them is difficult. In some areas kids would be lucky if they saw a dentist’s chair every two years.
But what about the safety of fluoride? The Minister of Health’s February letter set out the Government’s belief that fluoride is a harmless substance with minimal side-effects.
Annette King took the opportunity to lambaste Dr Paul Connett, a professor of chemistry at St Lawrence University in New York.
Dr Connett is known internationally for his research and collation of information on the effects of fluoride, but the minister declared this research to be not supported by the evidence available in reputable scientific literature.
However, a perusal of just some of his sources, citations that appear to be peer-reviewed, scientifically published but perhaps not industry-funded, shows a different picture. He presents evidence on everything from the relationship between fluoridated water and increased bone (particularly hip) fractures (19 separate studies for that one) to the true extent of fluorosis in children and the possible association between fluoride and such things as reduced fertility, the increased uptake of aluminium into the brain and increased uptake of lead into children’s blood.
The minister also does us a disservice when she says in her letter that more than 40 countries fluoridate their waters. What she fails to say is that only seven countries artificially fluoridate most of their drinking water. The rest have either stopped recently or fluoridate only one city.
Perhaps if the ministry had consented to send a representative to the 25th conference of the International Society of Fluoride Research in January, it might have gained more up-to-date information. The Dunedin conference hosted numerous international fluoride experts.
It’s difficult to imagine any reason for the ministry’s failure to take advantage of the latest research on their doorstep, particularly given that a new fluoride promotion campaign is about to start.
The ministry is, of course, likely to come back with a vigorous defence of its endorsement of fluoride. But perhaps when you’re reading their fulsome PR it may be pertinent to consider that fluoride seems to have failed to prevent caries. And that its promise of an all-inclusive dental Band-aid has gone hand in hand with the virtual dismantling of the child dental health system.
Combine these with the Environmental Protection Agency’s new concerns about toxicity and the simple fact that mass medication via our water violates the cornerstone of medical ethics – the right of the patient to informed consent – and you begin to wonder if fluoridation will be this country’s next failed experiment.