I do not believe anyone who supports fluoridation has ever really looked at the facts.
– Justice P. Flaherty, after presiding over the biggest fluoridation case in US history

“Potted history” of fluoridation in New Zealand

By Bill Wilson, President of the NZ Pure Water Association

Many people have heard of Dr. John Colquhoun, the former Principal Dental Officer of Auckland City. However, there were many other people who were more influential in the early fight against water fluoridation in New Zealand. I cannot name them all, but immediately springing to mind are: Sir Dove-Myer Robinson, former Mayor of Auckland, Mr. W.A.G. Penlington, former Headmaster of Hastings Grammar school, Dr. Eva Hill and Kath Wilcock and her committee and members of the NZ Pure Water Association Inc.

The first water fluoridation experiments had started in America in 1945, and were due to continue for 10 years. However, even before the eruption of the first teeth of children born at the start of the experiment, large reductions in dental caries were claimed. These “successes” were trumpeted around the world and many countries decided to demonstrate reduction of caries in their own countries by fluoridating water supplies. Most of continental Europe, China, Russia, Japan, India and many other countries decided against continuation after trying it. New Zealand along with other English-speaking countries, Australia, Canada, Eire and, to a lesser extent, UK still fluoridate – including the United States and Singapore, comprising less than 5% of the world population.

In October 1949, all NZ Medical Officers of Health were asked to arrange for monthly samples of borough water supplies to be taken for the estimation of fluoride levels. The NZ Dental Association (NZDA), after consultation with the Minister of Health, proposed to Hastings council in April 1951 that a fluoridation plant be installed for a “demonstration” of fluoride efficacy in reducing caries. The cabinet approved the plan in early March 1952 “for a 10 year experiment in Hastings and Havelock North designed to test in these two towns a method of improving the teeth by adding minute amounts of fluoride to the water supply.” A condition of the approval was that the experiment be confined to the two mentioned towns, strongly implying no further fluoridation “experiments” for ten years.

The addition of fluoride to Hastings water started approximately March 1954 according to an HD letter. However, a letter from Mr J Ferris Fuller (JFF) to Dr Arnold 16/7/54) stated that figures for fluoride levels in Hastings water had been received regularly for 12 months by the HD – this would put fluoridation commencement at July 1953. Four samples taken during 1949 and 1950 found an average level of fluoride of 0.04 ppm. However, great consternation was caused when a sample of 0.96 ppm was found on 5/7/51 (pre-fluoridation) – more on this interesting point later.

Dr Arnold was the principal author of the first American fluoride study in Grand Rapids and Director of the influential National Institute of Dental Research, Bethesda, U.S.A. Dr Parfitt was Head of the Childrens Dept, Eastman Dental Hospital,London. On the 18th May 1954, Drs Arnold and Parfitt visited the Hastings fluoridation plant and wrote a very critical report that the demonstration was very poorly conducted. The fluoridation agent was a dry powder that stuck in the hopper and produced a very variable water fluoridation rate. Samples were later reported as between 0.1 and 9 ppm (parts per million). The workman responsible for the plant had no protective clothing for handling such a toxic chemical. At night it was left to the goodwill of Power Board workers to release the powder. It was clear that the equipment was not suitable for the job.

A meeting of the fluoridation committee took place on the 18th June 1954 to consider the only item on the agenda, from JFF based on the critical report from Drs Parfitt and Arnold. A member of the committee, Dr Taylor MOH for Palmerston North agreed that the situation at Hastings was “comic opera” since nobody knew who was in charge. Dr Turbott made it clear that the HD was in charge but the Hastings Borough Council is the local agency only, which must continue to be used. It was agreed that a group should immediately go to Hastings and investigate the position. After the meeting on 25th June 1954, Dr Maclean informed JFF that fluoride levels continued to be erratic in the vicinity of 2.5 ppm with one at 9 ppm. It had been decided that fluoridation would cease at Hastings for “technical reasons”, but which were admitted to be the continuing high fluoride levels. JFF stated “for obvious reasons the public is being kept in the dark about this and only token quantities of fluoride are being added to the water”.

In late 1954, fluoridation restarted from the newly commissioned plant. On 20th July 1955, the Director General of Health (DGH) notified the Mayor of Hastings Borough Council that the fluoride dosage was now satisfactory and that assessment of dental health of children due to fluoridation should commence as from 1st July 1955. The DGH made the interesting comment that “By that date all children concerned should have had the preliminary dental examination to obtain the data which is to be the basis of the survey. Also, it had been found that the size and complexity of the fillings had been considerably reduced. In addition, each School Dental Nurse in the Hastings area can now control approximately 40 per cent more patients than her counterparts of years gone by. There has also been a saving to the taxpayer of up to 50 per cent on the costs of dental benefits in the Hastings area”. This was indeed remarkable because dental health benefit assessment due to fluoride was to commence a week later than the quoted letter.

A confidential letter on 26th July 1955 from JFF to the Secretary, NZDA confirmed that “for the purpose of assessment of results the study should be deemed to have started on 1st July 1955. This of course is not for publication because as far as the public of Hastings are concerned fluoridation started some time ago”. This letter also stated that “Mr T.G.Ludwig found he could not calibrate his dental examinations against those of Dr. Hewat. Accordingly the base line examinations of Hastings and Napier children have been completely re-done by Mr Ludwig whose standard is in line with that used in fluoridation studies in the U.S.A. These base line re-examinations were completed towards the end of June.” On 23rd September 1958, Dr Ludwig, in response to a critical letter by Mr Penlington wrote inter alia “Within a few weeks of my arrival in New Zealand at the end of August 1954, I commenced dental examinations of Hastings and Napier children to establish a base-line survey whereby I could later evaluate the effectiveness of fluoridation. The results of these examinations, which represent the start of my study, showed that an initial difference occurred in the amount of dental decay experienced by Hastings and Napier children.”…”There was one fact which came from the study, from this initial survey, and this was that the children aged 5, 6, 7 and 8 years who lived in Napier appeared to have considerably less tooth decay than children of the same age in Hastings. I would like to emphasise here that this was prior to continuous fluoridation”. There is a choice of July 1951 or 1953 or March 1954 for the actual starting date of fluoridation with very erratic fluoride rates up to the re-commencement of fluoridation in October 1954, with a more stable dose of 1 ppm. In fact then, the official base line examinations took place more than six months after the restart of fluoridation and before the official assessment start. However, the initial survey commencement date by Ludwig as stated by JFF was June 1955, whereas Ludwig himself had stated ” a few weeks after my arrival at the end of August 1954″.

Meanwhile, in spite of the Cabinet approval in 1952 for trials only in Hastings and Napier for ten years, the Auckland branch of the NZDA wrote to the Director of Public Hygiene on the 1st of November 1955 enclosing copies of letters expressing approval for fluoridation from Auckland City Council, Northcote, Ellerslie, New Lynn and Mt Roskill Borough Councils. The Director of Public Hygiene wrote on the 7thalia “that such an undertaking should be controlled by a committee comprising representatives of the British Medical Association, NZDA, DOH, and department of Scientific and Industrial Research”. The following day, the Dept of Health (DOH) in a confidential letter on 8th November 1955 to all Medical Officers of Health requested information for the Fluoridation Committee. They wanted to know the local authorities that have water supplies which could be fluoridated, a brief description of the source of supply, storage and method of reticulation, whether the supply is supervised by an engineer appointed for the purpose by the local authority concerned, estimated population in each area, and local authority areas that have water supplies which are considered to be unsuitable for fluoridation. They wrote “It is suggested the above information can be obtained from your records and the local knowledge of yourself and your officers, i.e. without inquiry outside the Department. This is to be regarded solely as a request for information. The Department does not contemplate any action in the near future to encourage fluoridation of water supplies.” November 1955 to the New Zealand Dental Association Inc (NZDA), copy to JFF, that the Department had reconsidered its policy and would not oppose additional fluoridation projects, provided the local authority concerned had applied for and obtained the approval of the Minister of Health. It was advised inter

In 1956, Cabinet gave approval for a poll of Hastings citizens on the subject of fluoridation. JFF, on hearing of this, “weighed in heavily in favour of a request that the Government be asked to reconsider the whole question”. The Fluoridation committee duly asked to Government to hold a Commission of Enquiry, which was approved. The Commission reported in 1957 that fluoridation was safe and efficacious – this was five years before the Hastings experiment was due to end and finally report.

During 1955-58, Dr John Colquhoun, an ardent fluoridation supporter, was a Glen Eden borough councillor and persuaded the Mayor and his fellow councillors to agree to fluoridation of the water supply. This was in spite of the assurances in the previous paragraph. Meanwhile fluoridation proceeded throughout NZ until about 60% of the population was fluoridated. Most of this was achieved without any thought of democratically getting the approval of the population.

John Colquhoun was so successful an advocate for water fluoridation that he was asked to make fluoridation a subject of a world tour in 1980, after which he was to become the DOH expert on fluoridation and to inform the public and professionals of fluoride effficacy. Before starting his world tour, John, as Principal Dental Officer for Auckland, decided to look at dental statistics for his own district. He was horrified to find that fewer fillings were required for children in the non-fluoridated areas. On his world tour he found the same situation and was told that as more information became available the benefits of fluoride would become apparent. He was promised the new information as it became available. John later wrote to his previous hosts for the information but it was not forthcoming. He asked the Health Ministry for nation wide statistics and was given them but told to keep them confidential – they were similar to his previous information.

Dr Colquhoun was too principled to advocate for fluoridation with this knowledge and told his superiors he could not comply with their orders. From then on John advocated against fluoridation. He became treasurer and editor of Fluoride, the journal of the International Society for Fluoride Research, the only body exclusively researching this subject. In collaboration with Dr Robert Mann, their paper, “The Hastings Fluoridation Experiment: Science or Swindle?”, was published in The Ecologist in 1986. Dr Colquhoun had also obtained Health Ministry documents under the Freedom of Information Act. These showed clearly that the dental nurses were ordered to stop fillings according to their normal practice – they were only to fill teeth if the caries had penetrated to the dentine. Naturally, there were many fewer fillings which result was claimed as due to fluoridation. Many more papers were also published in peer-reviewed scientific journals on the subject of fluoride.

The advent of the latest Labour government brought the appointment of Annette King, a former dental nurse, to power as the Minister of Health. Mrs King is a fluoride zealot and brings the total financial resources of government to the aid of the pro-fluoride side. There is now a continuous effort to fluoridate the remaining areas of NZ. She has not had things all her own way, with most of the non-fluoridated areas refusing to accept the addition of toxic substances to drinking water. Strong pro-fluoride campaigns in Petone, Onehunga and Northland failed. Particularly encouraging was Don Church’s great success in having fluoridation stopped in Ashburton and Sylvia Cole, who in spite of council approval to continue fluoridation, persisted in her resistance and won. Papakura was lost while the anti-fluoride forces were tied up elsewhere. At Timaru, fluoridation ceased in 1985 after a successful campaign by Imelda Hitchcock. With continued pressure from the Ministry of Health to re-fluoridate, the Timaru District Council agreed to hold a referendum on the subject in 1995. Just prior to the referendum the Southern Regional Health Authority spent $42,000 to “educate” the public on the benefits of fluoridation. Nevertheless the result of the Timaru referendum was 67.5% against fluoridation and 26.8% voting for it. Timaru remains unfluoridated. Particular mention must be made of Dr Paul Connett of Fluoride Action Network who twice visited NZ from America and toured around the country giving lectures against fluoride and also lecturing on environmental issues. Paul also attended the 25th conference of the International Society for Fluoride Research in Dunedin during January of this year. Health officials were invited to debate with Paul each time he was in the country. They declined each time, though Dr Tukuitonga was invited to a radio interview which I had organised for Paul to speak – we were not aware of this until Paul arrived for the broadcast. Dr Tukuitonga was not willing to debate but merely to give his views.

John confided in me that he was most pleased by the results of his submissions in 1997 to the Lord Mayor’s Taskforce on Fluoridation in Brisbane, Australia – fluoridation was rejected in this last non-fluoridated State capital. Two years later John died but the battle against fluoridation still continues. After 41 years Basel, the last fluoridated city in Switzerland, stopped fluoridation because the evidence for its efficacy or safety was not there. There is only one fluoridated city in Spain preventing the whole of continental Europe becoming fluoride-free.