Increasing consumption of bottled water and junk food could be to blame for the continuing decline in the dental health of Australia’s children, experts said yesterday.

Five-year-olds experienced a 22 per cent increase in decayed baby teeth over the past four years, while six-year-olds had an 8 per cent increase in the same period, a report found.

Produced by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, it also showed 10 per cent of those six-year-olds had more than five times the national average the number of missing, decayed or filled teeth.

The results of the Child Dental Health Survey: Trends Across the 1990s, follow 20 years of improvement in rates of tooth decay.

Despite decreasing standards in children’s dental health, the report found Australia had the second-lowest average number of decayed, missing or filled permanent teeth in 12-year-olds when compared to 38 other countries.

Rob Butler, executive director of the Australian Dental Association, said fluoride and effective health education had contributed to Australia’s good dental health.

“But we can’t ignore special needs for some groups in the community,” Dr Butler said.

“Aborigines, recently arrived immigrants and residents of the poorer areas of our capital cities … [have a] standard of oral health way below the national average.”

And although 80 per cent of water supplies of NSW contained fluoride, increasing use of bottled water was having an impact.

“While people still get the benefits of fluoridation from toothpaste, those who rely only on bottle water may be missing out,” Dr Butler said.

The 1995 National Nutrition Survey found more than 75 per cent of children ate high-fat foods such as biscuits, more than half ate pies and hamburgers, and more than a third ate snack foods such as chips.

“The high concentration of carbohydrates in some of these junk-food diets, coupled with snacking … and soft drinks means there is more exposure to acid attack for teeth.”

Dr Butler said while all states had comprehensive school dental programs, they did not cover pre-schoolers, who are at an age where dental problems often begin

According to report author, Jason Armfield, increases in tooth decay were most evident for five-year-olds, with a 22 per cent rise between 1996 and 1999.

The survey of 372,000 children also found a corresponding drop in the percentage of children with no tooth decay.

Mr Armfield said the report had not examined why children’s dental health was in decline, but reduced fluoride intake and dietary changes may be contributing.

“There is some evidence to suggest younger children who drink more bottled or tank water, which have no fluoride in them, have more tooth decay,” he said.

A reduction in fluoride from other sources, because of the advent of low fluoride toothpaste for children and the declining use of fluoride tablets, could also be contributing.

“Tooth decay has been steadily declining over the last 20-30 years, so this is a fairly significant change … and there are some preliminary indications that the trend is continuing,” Mr Armfield said.

The NSW Chief Dental Officer, Alan Patterson, said discrepancies in data collection had been corrected three years ago. The tabled NSW figure has been adjusted accordingly.