Canterbury dentists have praised the Government’s decision to take responsibility for water fluoridation from councils, saying it will reduce child tooth decay.
The announcement was “a huge step forward” for equity, Christchurch paediatric dentist Arun Natarajan said.
Christchurch is the only major centre in New Zealand without a fluoridated water supply.
“As a hospital paediatric dentist I see young tamariki walking through the doors every day with pain and suffering and this is actually great leadership from the Government.”
One dentist says the move will reduce the “pain and suffering” of tooth decay.
Christchurch City councillors are concerned about the cost to ratepayers and are calling for the Government to fully fund it.
Associate Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall said on Thursday control of water fluoridation was being handed to Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield.
The change would ensure the public health measure was applied consistently across the country, she said.
A bill giving District Health Boards (DHBs) responsibility for fluoridation introduced by National in 2016 had been languishing in Parliament, despite cross-party support.
Just before Verrall’s announcement, the Canterbury District Health Board (CDHB) voted to adopt a revised position statement supporting water fluoridation in a monthly meeting.
Its position also supported a “single national process rather than a series of local decisions” for the contentious issue.
Canterbury’s public health dentist Martin Lee has been advocating for fluoridating the region’s water supply for decades and said he felt “a huge sense of relief” about the announcement.
He said the positive effects of fluoridation would be seen “fairly quickly” in children and would continue throughout their lifetime.
“Given that tooth decay develops fairly rapidly in little children, you would expect, once you start fluoridating, to be seeing results within three years.”
A study released last year found nearly 20 per cent of Canterbury’s 5-year-olds have tooth decay.
Natarajan said the announcement was “music to my ears”.
He was pleased government funding would be made available to councils for implementation.
At the CDHB meeting board member and city councillor James Gough abstained from the vote, saying he could not support it without knowing how it would be paid for.
“It’s completely inappropriate for a body to make a decision on something which they will not have to pay for.”
Council estimates from 2017 for the cost of fluoridation ranged between $10 million to $20m to establish the system, with ongoing costs of $500,000 to $1m a year.
Head of three waters and waste Helen Beaumont said fluoridating Christchurch’s water supply would be “a relatively expensive exercise because of multiple pump stations, rather than one or two sources of water for the city”.
Mayor Lianne Dalziel was unavailable for comment on Thursday.
Christchurch deputy mayor Andrew Turner said the decision removed the ability of local communities to have an input into what was right for their community.
He did not want to see an additional financial burden fall on ratepayers.
The council was forced to chlorinate drinking water supplies after standards were tightened in the wake of the Havelock North outbreak in 2016 which left four people dead and thousands ill.
Upgrades to the water network has since cost the council millions of dollars.
New Zealand Dental Association spokesman Rob Beaglehole said he was hopeful the “vast majority” of the cost for fluoridation would be covered by the Government, but it would be reasonable for councils to contribute as they had a responsibility for well-being under the local government act.
Christchurch residents who spoke to Stuff had mixed views about fluoridation.
Halswell community chaplain Rowan Durward, 46, said fluoridation would make a huge difference to the oral health of children.
“I’m pro-fluoride, especially for children who can’t afford good dental care.”
Engineer Antoinette Tan, 36, from Mairehau, also supported fluoridation and said it was important people were educated about the evidence.
She felt people often did not understand the serious impacts of poor dental health and those who opposed fluoridation could use water filters.
Kevin Sproule, 50, of Papanui, opposed fluoridation.
“No fluoride, no chlorine, no chloride … let water just be water.”
Christchurch had the best tap water in the world but “now it tastes like s…”, he said.
People should “brush their teeth twice a day if they want to take care of their teeth”, Sproule said.
– Additional reporting by Hanna McCallum