Media Reports

History of Water Fluoridation in Canterbury

Waimairi is the only district in Canterbury to be fluoridated. It started in 1965 and ended after a strong campaign in 1986.

Compiled by Yvonne McDonald

Canterbury has a very dubious fluoridation record which would never have eventuated had it not been for the coercion of the New Zealand Dental and Health Departments on a mission in the 1960’s to fluoridate as much of New Zealand as possible. At the time the NZ Government had been seen as “easy pickings” for the U.S. fluoridation brigade, backed by the Aluminium Industry and others with vested and corrupt interests. Thus our small and vulnerable country became second in the world to adopt what we now see as a practice incorporating a litany of corruption and deceit.

And so it was that in 1965 a campaign was launched to fluoridate the large western area of Christchurch known as Waimairi County with a population of 69,400. The Waimairi District Council was swayed by predictions of up to 90% reduction in dental decay and a lowering in the incidence of cancer. A study indicating the latter was cited to the council but not made available for public viewing if there had indeed been one. Thus in September 1965 fluoridation began in Christchurch.

Over the years, the N.Z. Pure Water Association sent submissions to the council stating concerns about fluoridation but the council, in their ignorance, relied on the support and opinions of local dentists and their associates. However, in 1983 a group of residents became proactive about educating the public about the use of toxic silicofluorides in their drinking water and abhorrence about the practice grew. They were fortunate to gain support from the Honourable Bert Walker, Minister of Social Welfare, and Dr John Colquhoun former Dean of the Auckland Dental School and once an active fluoridation promoter.

After being sent on a world tour to gather evidence of the effectiveness of fluoridation then on his return to N.Z. close scrutiny of the practice lead him to the same conclusion as overseas countries that fluoridation had little if any effectiveness. He was also concerned about the increasing dental fluorosis amongst children and the deliberate change in treatment techniques by dental nurses to give false efficacy of fluoridation. For abiding by his conscience, instead of departmental policy to promote fluoridation, his career ended abruptly but he was free to openly campaign about fluoridation and help the Waimairi campaign. Numerous requests to obtain relevant data pertaining to the promised reduction in dental caries were denied but the introduction of the Freedom of information Act gave them access to the data needed to prove that fluoridation in Waimairi had been a complete farce. The filling rates for both the fluoridated Waimairi County and the unfluoridated areas of Christchurch showed not one iota of difference ie. 0.72 fillings per child per year……the document was labelled “Not for Publication” and we can see why. Another document with the notation “Not to be quoted or cited” showed that the % of caries free children was slightly higher in the unfluoridated areas of Canterbury, as it was in several other areas of New Zealand at the time.

This was enough information to instigate a referendum on fluoridation in the Waimairi County and subsequent results showed 14,990 were against fluoridation and 14,148 favoured it, still ignorant in their belief that it must be good if the “experts” said so.

Fluoridation finally ceased in September 1986 when all existing supplies of the fluoridation chemical were exhausted as the substance was too toxic to discard by any other means. With that debacle over the prospect of fluoridation in Canterbury was put to bed for several years until 2003 when another concerted approach from the Oral Health Advisor of the CDHB was made to the Christchurch City Council but they voted unanimously not to have a bar of it. The then Mayor stated that the council added absolutely no chemicals to the water so by default was admitting that the “topping up to optimal level” was not natural calcium fluoride.

However, in the grand old tradition of never giving up on the quest to fluoridate the potable water supply in Canterbury, the same old pity-seeking pictures of decayed teeth with accompanying rhetoric crop up at least annually in local newspapers. Statements are made that Canterbury children have some of the worst teeth in New Zealand because of lack of fluoridation. However data on the Ministry of Health website shows this as a blatant untruth as fluoridated cities in New Zealand like Dunedin and Hamilton consistently have a lesser percentage of children decay free and a greater rate of dmft (decayed missing or filled teeth) in both age comparison ranges than unfluoridated Canterbury.

So with fluoridation not having an easy passage into the region, a positive campaign to improve children’s oral health was working behind the scenes with an announcement in April 2009 that a Lift The Lip campaign had been launched in 2000 by Pegasus Health involving the enrolment of children into dental services at their 15 months immunisation check, The clinical director of the dental programme, Dr Martin Lee hailed the results as fantastic as the 65% of children starting school caries- free was well above the national average and reinforced the viewpoint that early intervention and caregiver education produced positive results.

Also in 2009 the Canterbury District Health Board announced it would spend $13.3million over the ensuing 3 years replacing the region’s 120 outdated school dental clinics with 12 multi-chair community clinics and 18 campervan style mobile clinics with an emphasis on preventing decay rather than treating it. The positive improvement in 5 year old children was endorsed in a document entitled Child and Adolescent Oral Health 2013. The data also showed that in 2010 year 8 children caries- free soared to 8% over the national figure. So it seemed that the message that sound oral health without fluoridation could be obtained by early intervention, oral health education across the board and free dental care up to age 18. However in the good old tradition that fluoridation promoters have an insatiable quest to extend fluoridation to every part of New Zealand, in June 2013 the idea was again muted that Canterbury people needed to drink fluoridated water to prevent tooth decay…..a short sharp burst which diminished as quickly as it started.

There is no doubt that this is not the end for Canterbury but as time goes on and the world and New Zealanders themselves are more educated about the folly of fluoridation and cessation is accelerated, the threat will gradually diminish until it is no more. Like borer holes in a wall which sooner or later cause it to collapse, so too will the holes in the pro-fluoridation propaganda bring about a like demise and the world will look back and wonder how it could all have been for so long.