The week after I arrived in Warrnambool about three months ago, 1,000 people attended a public meeting about the proposed introduction of fluoride to the water supply here. For a town the size of Warrnambool, that’s a lot of people… Having come from Canberra via Melbourne I was surprised to find that fluoride wasn’t already in the water – indeed, outside the major cities (with the notable absence of Brisbane), fluoride seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Several areas in regional Victoria – including Ballarat and Geelong – are currently discussing flouride. In some cases, local councils are getting involved, in others, they’re standing back saying it’s very much a state government issue.

The debate over fluoride has been a frustrating one – the anti fluoride campaigners have organised several public meetings and demonstrations, but their efforts to involve anyone from the pro fluoride side in any kind of public debate have been flatly refused. Meanwhile, the Department of Human Services have taken out newspaper ads to spread their pro-fluoride message, and the Chief Health Officer with the DHS, Dr John Carnie, has also visited Warrnambool to talk to members of the media. At the same time he was here, Dr Paul Connett, the Executive Director of the Fluoride Action Network, was in town speaking at a public event. The two didn’t meet, but Dr Connett did appear on the breakfast program to put forward some of his ideas.

Dr Connett pointed to several studies from China and India which seemed to indicate that fluoride can lower your i.q., he also spoke about links with thyroid problems, and the effects of dental fluorosis, suggesting that some children in the US have been so severely affected that they’re ashamed to show their teeth when they smile. To answer some of these claims, Dr John Carnie agreed to be interviewed on the program as well, and provided a very different interpretation of some of these studies.

Another point of difference is Europe where fluoride is delivered in different ways, including fluoridated salt, milk, and tooth varnishes. According to the pro fluoride side, the reason fluoride isn’t in the water in most European countries is because of topographical and engineering problems. The anti fluoride lobby say many of those countries have banned fluoride.

One thing both sides do seem to agree on is that it’s an equity issue… Dr Paul Connett produced evidence to suggest the real divide between good teeth and bad teeth was to be found in socio economic backgrounds, and Dr John Carnie stated that the DHS also see this as an equity issue – hence the decision to deliver fluoride in a form which is free to everyone.

The other big issue emerging from this debate is one of choice – regardless of whether or not you agree with the idea of putting fluoride in the water, a lot of people are angry that they’re not being given the chance to either vote on the issue, or make the decision themselves by putting fluoride into products which they can choose not to buy. In some areas though, including Portland and Port Fairy, there isn’t a choice as fluoride already occurs naturally in the water at levels which are close enough to the DHS’s ideal levels of one part per million.

Given that the majority of Australia’s population has access to, and presumably regularly drinks, fluoridated water, it might seem difficult to accept some of the anti fluoride arguments, unless, as Dr Connett argues, the proper studies just haven’t been done to look for the potential adverse health effects. However, during his visit to Warrnambool, Dr Carnie was quoted in the Warrnambool Standard as saying ‘what conceivable reason would we have, as public health practitioners, to advocate something that we know to be harmful? It would just go completely against all our public health principles’. You’d also have to ask why someone like Dr Paul Connett would spend his time flying around the world arguing against fluoride if he didn’t think there’s a real case against putting it into the water.

In these pieces of audio, Dr Paul Connett and Dr John Carnie outline their respective stances on fluoride, and Dr Colin Rix, an Associate Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at RMIT, talks generally about what fluoride actually is and how our bodies deal with it. The links below are to various organisations mentioned in these interviews.