Story & photos Eve Jeffery
More than 250 people attended an event in Byron Bay last night, chaired by journalist and broadcaster Mick O’Regan, to hear a debate on the very contentious issue of water fluoridation.
The first of the ‘Critical Conversations’, a series of talks on topics chosen for their relevance and importance, hosted by the Community Centre, tackled the issue of the introduction of water fluoridation to the Byron Shire water supply. O’Regan said that this particular issue was ‘pushing the series off at the deep end’.
‘I think everyone in the room realises that the issue of water fluoridation is one that arouses passions and fervently held opinions,’ he said.
‘It’s also a subject about which many people, myself included, are genuinely seeking more information. Tonight we have an opportunity for that information to be presented, considered and discussed. This is not a town hall meeting, we are not taking a vote, we are not drafting a resolution. This is an opportunity for information. To be blunt, it’s an opportunity to listen.’
Byron Shire councillors will meet in a closed session next week to discuss the issue. Council is currently opposed to the idea of fluoridation.
‘Oral health crisis’
The event featured guest speakers from both sides of the debate. The supporters of fluoridation: Dr Brendan White, vice-president of the Australian Dental Association; Professor Alison Jones, a clinical toxicologist; Dr Kerry Chant, chief health officer for NSW; and epidemiologist Professor Wayne Smith.
First to speak was Dr Brendan White, who said he was motivated to get involved with supporting fluoridation after arriving in Byron Bay 18 years ago, after having lived in Adelaide, which has water fluoridation, and noticing how many children he was having to treat for serious dental health issues.
‘In Adelaide I would expect to find one diseased tooth in a class of preschoolers,’ he said. ‘When I was involved with my children’s preschools here, I found at least ten diseased teeth in these classes. Nine years ago I initiated the process to seek fluoridation for our community.
‘We do have an oral health crisis in our area. The North Coast Area Health Service says the decay experienced in five- to six-year-olds is the worst in New South Wales.’
The state’s chief medical officer, Dr Kerry Chant, spoke about legal and technical aspects of water fluoridation, about funding and about the current coverage in the state. She also spoke about the safety and effectiveness of fluoridation.
‘The current legal mechanism in New South Wales is basically there are two routes by which a local council or authority or water utility can seek to be fluoridated. Firstly they may make a decision in the local council and seek approval from the director-general of health for approval to fluoridate or they may defer to and seek advice and a direction from the director-general of health.
‘Water fluoridation in NSW was first introduced in Yass in 1956,’ she said of the state coverage. Sydney water was fluoridated in 1968. Now, approximately 96 per cent of NSW receives fluoridated water.’
Dr Chant outlined the reasons for the decline in decay as being an exposure to fluoride.
‘Water fluoridation accounts for 70 per cent of the reduction. Twenty-six per cent is attributed to the use of fluoride toothpaste and two per cent to fluoride tablets.’
As time ran out in in the pro-team’s half hour limit, Prof Alison Jones kept her speech brief, saying she would have more information to impart during the question period.
Speaking against fluoride were: former Lismore mayor and former chair of Rous Water Dr Ros Irwin; Merilyn Haines, retired medical laboratory scientist and president of Queenslanders for Safe Water; dentist Dr Robert Gammal, a past president of the Australian Society of Oral Medicine and Toxicology; Brunswick Heads dentist, Dr Marcus O’Meara; and former Byron Shire councillor Richard Staples, who was also formerly a member of Rous Water.
Local dentist opposes fluoride
Conscious of the half-hour limit, speakers orated in sharp rapid-fire succession to impart as much information as possible.
Local dentist Dr Marcus O’Meara said that he came from a long line of dentists.
‘I am a fifth-generation dentist,’ he said. ‘My father was a dentist in Ireland pre and post water fluoridation and he did notice a difference in the dental caries in kids’ teeth at that time. Pre-fluoridation it was common to come for a routine check-up and get a couple of fillings. Post-fluoridation he noticed more and more kids coming through and not needing fillings and this was a trend worldwide at that time in the countries that fluoridated.’
Dr O’Meara said in the past most toothpastes didn’t contain fluoride but that currently 95 per cent of toothpaste sold has fluoride in it.
‘Improvement in caries prevention and education in oral hygiene has meant that the benefits of water fluoridation have been well and truly diluted. The facts are there for anyone to see. The glory days of water fluoridation in the 50s and 60s and 70s, when teeth were bad and music was good, are over. Nowadays we are better putting our resources into making dentists available.’
Merilyn Hayes opened her statement with a list of chemicals used in water fluoridation.
‘There is sodium fluoride, sodium silicofluoride and hydrofluorosilicic acid,’ she said. ‘They are waste products of the aluminium and phosphate fertiliser industry.’
She said that two of the chemicals, sodium fluoride and sodium silicofluoride, are sourced from China.
‘China does not fluoridate.’
Dr Ros Irwin says that the proponents of water fluoridation are suggesting that though they are dealing with facts, opponents are dealing with opinions. She quoted a press release where the chair of the Northern Rivers General Practitioners stated: ‘The facts are that fluoride is the best way of protecting the community’s oral health.’
‘It seems to me like an upfront denial of the evidence-based science that actually contests this so-called fact,’ said Dr Irwin.
Richard Staples said that some people might think that this is an issue that councillors instigate.
‘Rous Water is a water authority. It’s not the councils who administer the fluoridation; it’s the water authority.’
Dr Robert Gammel began by giving the audience his web address – www.robertgammal.com.
‘I have written a submission to government that has 390 scientific published, peer-reviewed references,’ he said. ‘The only thing I heard from the proponents of fluoride is totally anecdotal. There is not one published scientific paper presented.’
He then rushed through much scientific evidence to refute the supporters’ arguments. He next went through a long list of health problems that he said were caused by fluoride, then concluded with the plea that people go to his site and read the paper.
The evening concluded with a round of questions, none of which appeared to show any support for the addition of fluoride to the shire’s water.
Council to consider
Council will consider the information from experts next Wednesday.
Echonetdaily spoke to mayor Simon Richardson before the forum and asked why it was that Council was not hosting the event. Cr Richardson said that Council had already made a choice against the introduction of fluoride to the shire’s water and if that view changed there would be more community consultation.
‘Council’s position is clear,’ he said. ‘We don’t support water fluoridation, so until someone says otherwise, that’s our position.’
Cr Richardson says that councillors would ‘workshop’ the issue.
‘I guess councillors themselves, because it is topical around the region, want to have a session where experts on every side can give their advice freely without concerns of being abused from the back row. We want a workshop setting where we can ask questions. We were very open to supporting a community event.’
~ Photos Eve Jeffery