It's time for Hamilton City Council to stop playing doctor.
After years of citizen struggle to end the city's old habit of adding fluoride (hydrofluorosilicic acid) to public drinking water, a "tribunal-style" process is under way that should result in a firm council decision within months on whether to terminate or continue the highly controversial practice.
Every Hamiltonian has been invited by HCC to have a say on the matter. Submissions on whether residents should receive constant fluoride medication through their kitchen taps are being received by council through to the end of this month.
The fluoride debate has intensified in Hamilton and throughout New Zealand since the late 1990s, as new and troubling scientific data and public health research continues to emerge. In 2006, the city council chose to settle the matter of Hamilton's water with a public referendum.
While a majority voted for continued fluoridation, the low 38 per cent voter turnout meant fluoridation would stay on the political front burner - and it has.
With the fluoridation question unfinished business and with public concern growing, HCC proposed another referendum, this time alongside the October 2013 local body elections.
But concerned about cost and voter turnout, councillors cancelled the plan last June and tossed the ball back to its strategy and policy committee. In the end, the "tribunal" process was deemed best.
After public submissions this month, proponents and opponents of fluoridation will be asked to form "groups" to gather their respective evidence, organise speakers and present materials at a "hearings-style" setting in late May. Individuals may also present - then it's deliberation and a council vote.
Fluoridation in New Zealand is a policy born more than a half-century ago, when Hastings started adding the chemical to its city system in 1954. With a few exceptions, most fluoridation schemes date back to the same mid-century period - Lower Hutt 1959, Dunedin 1967, Upper Hutt 1965, New Plymouth 1970, Thames 1971. Decisions to fluoridate were made with scant public consultation and based on prevailing medical opinion. Remember that medical doctors at the time also endorsed smoking Camel unfiltered cigarettes in magazine adverts.
As for the assumed public health benefits of fluoridation, New Zealand's Ministry of Health, the NZ Dental Association, and WHO maintain the practice is a "safe and effective" way to prevent and reduce tooth decay.
Community water fluoridation, promoters say, is relatively inexpensive, easy to do, and reaches 100 per cent of the population. But district health boards and medical officers of health, who often speak up locally in support, are required by the ministry to advocate on benefits of fluoridation when it becomes a public issue. They in no way offer unbiased opinion.
Meanwhile, a body of impeccable scientific research now points to potential health risks of mass fluoride medication through drinking water. According to an exhaustive 2012 meta-study from the Harvard University School of Public Health reviewing 27 international epidemiological studies of fluoride in drinking water, "results support the possibility of adverse effects of fluoride exposure on children's neurodevelopment".
Citing consistent evidence of fluoride-associated cognitive deficits, the Harvard report urges further research on the potential developmental neurotoxicity of fluoride. Fluoride is known to cross the placental wall.
Potential health concerns now extend to infants and young children, those at risk from renal insufficiency or heart disease, and the general population. Individuals receive unknown and highly variable doses of the chemical depending on water consumption, despite a lack of evidence that swallowing fluoride (as opposed to applying it topically) provides dental health benefit.
Ruapehu District Council concluded it should not be medicating residents, when it terminated its Taumarunui community water fluoridation scheme in June, 2011. RDC stated it is not a health, medical or dental organisation and cannot and should not provide medical expertise or express confidence on medical matters. Nor is it a provider of health or dental products or funded to provide dental treatment, they said.
Most critically, RDC councillors concluded they cannot guarantee the complete safety of fluoridation for 100 per cent of its residents. fluoride is readily available for those who want it in toothpaste, gels and tablet form, they said. End of story.
After 41 years and a thorough fact-finding "tribunal" similar to Hamilton's, New Plymouth District Council also stopped fluoridation in 2011. NPDC is using its $18,000 annual fluoride spend on dental health education instead. HCC will hear many of the same facts and has $40,000 of annual fluoride funds available to run its own dental hygiene education programme.
After years of angst and teeth-gnashing, the time has come for Hamilton City Council to hang up the white coats and get out of the medical profession.
Geoffrey and Reihana Robinson are organic Coromandel farmers and ratepayers who take more than a passing interest in environmental issues and local politics. Their columns reflect their own opinions. To approve or disapprove of their opinions contact (firstname.lastname@example.org).