Fluoride Action Network

Wellington fluoride failure treated with a ‘lack of urgency’

Source: Dominion Post / Stuff.co.nz | July 8th, 2022 | By Erin Gourley
Location: New Zealand
Note: See original article for video
Wellington Water chair Lynda Carroll announces an independent inquiry into the fluoridation of water, and says Wellington’s water supply has not been fluoridated for up to ten months.
  • The inquiry into the failure to fluoridate Wellington’s water supply says fluoridation was not a priority
  • Wellington Water treated fluoridation issues with a “lack of urgency” and the board did not have the technical expertise needed to understand the problem
  • The inquiry comes after Wellington Water stopped fluoridating water for Wellington, Upper Hutt, and Porirua without telling anyone on two occasions in 2021
  • There is still no fluoride in the water supply, which oral health experts say is shocking and appalling

An inquiry into Wellington Water’s failure to fluoridate has found fluoridation was unimportant to the company, allowing problems to fly under the radar.

In March, Wellington Water revealed it turned off the fluoride facilities at two plants without informing its shareholding councils or the public. Oral health experts said they needed to know about the lack of fluoridation in order to properly care for children’s teeth.

The water supply has now been unfluoridated for more than a year in Upper Hutt, Porirua and the western suburbs of Wellington – and eight months for the central, southern and eastern suburbs. For the past six years fluoride was usually below the recommended level for dental health, the report reveals.

The inquiry by Doug Martin found fluoridation was not a priority for Wellington Water, creating the situation where fluoride was turned off indefinitely without telling the public or senior managers. Wellington Water’s board did not have the expertise to proactively find the problem or address the long-standing challenges with the fluoridation plants.

The inquiry found the company’s culture hindered communication about fluoride. There was a “lack of urgency” in addressing the problems with fluoride equipment. The company had a culture of “learned helplessness” where workers “gradually accepted that investments to address systemic issues would not be approved”.

Wellington City councillor Fleur Fitzsimons said the inquiry showed “deep cultural problems” at Wellington Water. “The teeth of Wellingtonians have been the casualty of this negligence,” she said.

Fitzsimons said constituents had raised dental problems with her, and she was concerned for her own young children who have never had recommended levels of fluoride in their water.

Dr Rob Beaglehole, of the New Zealand Dental Association, said the failure was “a disaster from a dental perspective”. It would most affect people living in deprivation and those who did not brush their teeth daily with fluoride toothpaste.

“Unfortunately, a greater number of people, including children and adolescents in Wellington, may require further support to access dental care required as a result.”

Wellington Water board chairperson Lynda Carroll said the inquiry findings “clearly identify where and how we failed, and we again apologise for those failings”.

“We had a responsibility to fluoridate your water and we did not do that consistently, and we failed to inform you of that. It is unacceptable, we feel like we have let you down and we have let you down,” she said at a press conference on Friday.

The board accepted the findings and recommendations of the inquiry, Carroll said, but she did not think the inquiry showed a broader cultural problem.

The organisation aimed to deliver fluoride back into the water supply in September 2022 by constructing new standalone facilities, chief executive Colin Crampton said. They were working to implement the inquiry’s recommendations, including increased transparency and a “relentless” focus on restoring fluoridation.

Wellington mayor Andy Foster said fluoride was a blindspot prior to the failure for everyone, including the shareholding councils and the central government.

He highlighted asset management failures as central to the findings – at the Gear Island plant a fluoride storage tank was deteriorating so badly that the reinforcing bars in the ceiling were exposed, forcing Wellington Water to stop fluoridating over health and safety concerns.

The inquiry found the response was slow because no-one took responsibility for the problems. When fluoride was turned off in May 2021, “although a lot of people knew something needed to be done, people were assuming that someone else was taking responsibility for leading the response”.

The board knew there were problems with low fluoridation levels in December 2021, but were not aware that fluoridation had been completely stopped until March this year.

The make-up of the board was another issue – contrary to the company’s own policy, none of the directors had practical experience in water services. The board “did not have the expertise to identify the gap and the issue wasn’t visible to them”.

The water treatment plant at Te M?rua – usually supplying Upper Hutt, Manor Park, Stokes Valley, Porirua and the western suburbs of Wellington – stopped fluoridating in May last year.

The water treatment plant at Gear Island – usually supplying Wellington’s business district and southern and eastern suburbs – stopped fluoridating in November.

*Original article online at https://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/news/129218615/wellington-fluoride-failure-treated-with-a-lack-of-urgency