Queensland’s anti-fluoride councils: a health or wealth decision

In the last few months, a number of Queensland local councils have voted to end water fluoridation from drinking water. At the time of writing, these are Cairns, Bundaberg, the Fraser Coast, Cloncurry, Burdekin Shire, North and South Burnett Councils, Domadgee Aboriginal Council and Tablelands Regional Council. These councils cover approximately 500,000 people.

Fluoridation of water supplies was mandated state-wide by the previous Queensland Labor government in 2008, well behind other states and territories which have had fluoridation for up to 50 years in some areas.

But with the change to a Liberal National Party government, Premier Campbell Newman and Health Minister Lawrence Springborg have allowed local councils to make up their own minds on the issue, based on a ‘freedom of choice’ principal.

According to an ABC report, Springborg says he is not concerned by the number of councils that have opted out of water fluoridation.

“We understand people want to make different decisions to central government agencies and not be dictated to and we respect that,” he told the ABC. This is despite the understanding that he is personally in favour of fluoridation.

The Queensland Education Minister John-Paul Langbroek has said that councils taking fluoride out of drinking water are “making a terrible mistake”. In doing so, Langbroek is calling on his professional background as a dentist.

To counter the anti-fluoride campaign, the Queensland Heath Department has sent Dr Michael Foley, the director of the Brisbane Dental Hospital, on a tour of the state appealing directly to councils to keep fluoridating their water.

Regarding the decision by those councils that voted against fluoridation, he said “That’s disappointing, I sympathise with them and councils have to look at their bottom line but the science is all on one side of the argument.”

The reference to “bottom line” is telling, as at least some councils have made their decision based not so much on the supposed ‘dangers’ of fluoridation, but on the cost of adding it to their water supplies.

Andrew Daniels, mayor of the Cloncurry Shire Council, told the ABC that health and cost issues played a major role in its decision to abandon plans to fluoridate the water supply.

He said that councillors decided the benefit for dental health was not great enough to justify the large cost involved.

The Council’s water and waste water environment officer, Shane Noon told the Council at a meeting in July last year that fluoridation of the water supply would have direct costs of about $48,000 per year, but with the addition of extra staff required, that could increase costs to $90,000 per year, plus an extra power component needed for batching plants, dosing plants and meters.

Daniel told the ABC: “We’ve done a hell of lot in the last five or six years to put our well-earned, hard-earned money into the right places and I think it’s just as easy for someone to buy toothpaste as it is, you know it’s a lot easier to do that than a fluoride pumping station.

“The councillors were very strong about no fluoride. It’s a very powerful stuff, fluoride; it’s good for your teeth but you can overdose on it as well.

“Cloncurry has a certain amount of natural fluoride in its water but obviously not to the right amount of fluoride for the standards that would have to be put in place if you did take on the fluoride, so we’re not going to take it on.” [sic]

Many regions around the world, including parts of Europe, that do not artificially fluoridate water do so because their supplies are naturally fluoridated, or the use of fluoridated toothpaste means that recommended fluoride levels have already been reached.

In 1999, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US listed water fluoridation as one of the ten great public health achievements of the 20th century, alongside vaccination, family planning and the recognition of the dangers of smoking. Other organisations endorsing fluoridation include the World Health Organisation, the US Surgeon General, the American Public Health Association, the European Academy of Paediatric Dentistry and the national dental associations of Australia, Canada, and the US.