Divisive debate on fluoride leads to a rotten conclusion
A dentist told NSW Parliament last week that the World Health Organisation had declared access to fluoride for dental health a basic human right.
Liberal Blue Mountains MP Roza Sage recalled treating the rotten teeth of many children living in the upper Mountains, beyond Springwood, which had once been the boundary where fluoridation of Sydney's water stopped.
''There is nothing worse than seeing children - and sometimes very little children - in pain with a toothache, a condition that is entirely preventable,'' she said.
Blue Mountains City Council began water fluoridation in 1992 and, in the next decade, the rate of tooth decay in local children almost halved.
Ninety-seven per cent of the NSW population now has access to fluoridated water. Yet, in an era when the science is in, the benefits are known and access to the technology has been solved (the state government has put $7.5 million on the table for councils still needing infrastructure), fluoridation was the subject of angry debate in the Parliament.
A Nationals MP called some Greens councillors ''rabid dogs'' and blamed them, and the internet, for the stubborn refusal of 14 councils, most notably in Byron Bay, to fluoridate their towns' water.
Sage lashed out at anti-fluoridation ''zealots'' but then accused Labor of playing politics on the issue. Labor pointed to the Deputy Premier, Nationals MP Andrew Stoner, opposing fluoridation at a 2009 forum in Wauchope, captured on YouTube.
The upshot is that a bill put forward by opposition health spokesman Andrew McDonald that would have compelled water authorities to add fluoride, even when a council opposed this, was voted down. Even the dentist voted against it. The government argued it had made an election commitment to support councils to make local decisions.
The bill was sparked by some extraordinary events in northern NSW last year. In September, Lismore City Council overturned its decision not to fluoridate, after seven years. The council had acted after alarm about young children having teeth extracted. But the fight by anti-fluoridation campaigners had led them to take the issue to the High Court and lose. NSW's chief health officer, Kerry Chant, was threatened with poisoning at the council meeting by angry campaigners.
McDonald reckoned the harassment was ''a line in the sand'' and the state government needed to act to protect the health of children.
Independent Lake Macquarie MP Greg Piper pointed out that Lismore's mayor had said she wanted the decision-making (and presumably the harassment) removed from councils like hers.
Piper drew a comparison with the childhood vaccination legislation that Labor put forward last year - swiftly adopted by the government - and called for the O'Farrell government to reintroduce its own version of the fluoridation bill.
Although Ballina Shire Council recently joined Lismore and also voted to fluoridate, Byron Shire Council rejected it in November. The result is that children growing up in Byron Bay will have a greatly increased risk of tooth decay. They will also have a higher risk of catching whooping cough or measles, because of low vaccination rates.
Last year, Labor proposed a bill that would ban unvaccinated children from attending childcare. It was a response to worsening vaccination rates in well-heeled areas of Sydney and the north coast.
Health Minister Jillian Skinner quickly responded with the government's own legislation. To attend a childcare centre in NSW, children must now provide a vaccination record. If they are unvaccinated because their parents are conscientious objectors, the parents must sit down with a doctor or nurse and listen to the risks of not vaccinating. But the law does not exclude the children of conscientious objectors from childcare.
The government claims it is similarly using education to increase fluoridation. This includes sending senior officials such as Chant, armed with science and facts, directly into the line of fire.
But McDonald warned that Byron Bay was ''only the start of the anti-fluoridation lobby to divide and conquer'' and there was a risk more councils would discontinue fluoridating, as in Queensland.
The Newman government axed compulsory fluoridation in 2012, giving the decision to councils.
Rabid dogs - zealots - not very nice.