Whangārei Mayor slams Government moves to ‘mass medicate’ council drinking water with fluoride

Government moves towards “mass medicating” council water supplies with fluoride have come under fire from Whangārei Mayor Sheryl Mai.

“People who drink water from the tap will be mass medicated (with fluoride) whether they want to be or not,” Mai said.

None of Northland’s 17 reticulated council water supplies across Whangārei District Council (WDC), Kaipara District Council (KDC) and Far North District Council (FNDC) are fluoridated.

Mai’s comments come as the Government last week stepped into Health (Fluoridation of Drinking Water) Amendment Bill debate, wanting to become the centralised decision-maker on the controversial mineral’s addition into New Zealand’s council drinking water supplies.

“‘Topping up” fluoride levels allows the well-established health benefits (of fluoride) to reach all New Zealanders, especially our children, Māori and Pacific populations and people in our poorer communities,” Associate Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall said.

The Bill is currently proposing decision-making on whether fluoride’s added to drinking water shifts away from councils to district health boards. That would mean decision-making on whether fluoride went into WDC, KDC and FNDC drinking water shifting to Northland District Health Board (DHB).

Central Government would like to further centralise that proposed shift, so that the decision is instead made by the Director-General of Health – and with that a clear intention to add fluoride to councils’ drinking water.

“This is mass medication,” Mai said.

“The Bill was introduced into the House in 2016. Given that fluoridating our drinking water is widely recognised as the single most important initiative to improve oral health, I expect this Bill to pass this year,” Verrall said.

Mai said WDC – in conjunction with its community – should instead decide on its council water fluoridation, stressing this position was hers as Mayor, ahead of council-wide discussion on the newly-heralded Government move.

“As a representative of our community it’s better that choice remains with us,” Mai said.

She said Whangārei people had told WDC they did not want fluoridation in their municipal water supplies. That had been in a referendum about 20 years ago. There was potential for another referendum if required.

Mai said there were many other ways Central Government should be putting taxpayer money into Northland’s dental health, particularly as it had one of New Zealand’s worst oral health profiles.

Adding fluoridation infrastructure to Northland’s reticulated council water systems will be a major cost.

“Only about 1 to 5 per cent of our treated (WDC) council water supply is used for drinking water. Would you go to the great expense of putting fluoride into the water for dental health on that basis?,” Mai said.

Verrall said funding would be available to support local councils with fluoridation-related infrastructure work.

“Local councils are responsible for the capital and operational costs of fluoridation. There will be funding available to support local councils with fluoridation related infrastructure work,” Verrall said.

Mai said it was important to consider who paid.

“Ratepayers yet again are being asked to foot the bill for a health initiative,” Mai said.

“It’s a health issue. Will the Ministry of Health be paying for this initiative?”

Mai said WDC would need to address how to deal with any potential for the council to be required to fluoridate.

Kaipara Mayor Dr Jason Smith said he was concerned about what was unfolding.

“I’m concerned at the trends of councils and ratepayers being ignored, of local democracy being denied,” Smith said.

“Which Government party is going to advocate for local democracy to be strengthened rather than reduced?,” Smith said.

Dr Shane Reti, National Deputy Leader and Whangārei List MP, said Northlanders should be making their opinions on the latest Government-led decision making proposal very clear.

“I am nervous there is no local decision-making in the new proposal,” Reti, a former NDHB member, said.

The Government putting fluoride into municipal water supplies removed people’s choice.

“People don’t have the choice to avoid it. Water is one of the necessities of life,” Reti said.

In 2002, as a then-new Northland DHB member, Reti lobbied FNDC to put fluoride in its town water supplies. He offered to put $70,000 of his own money towards a community opinion-gathering referendum.

Reti said Northland’s fluoride use decisions should be made by district health boards, not local councils as the matter was a health issue, about which the boards had more knowledge.

A local approach was preferable to centralised decision making.

“I wonder what iwi and hapu across Northland would say about that,” Reti said.

Northland has one of New Zealand’s lowest rates of council reticulated drinking water.

Just 3 per cent of its about 180 marae get their drinking water in this way.

Only 27 per cent of Kaipara’s people get their drinking water via reticulation, this figure lifting to 50 per cent when combined across WDC and FNDC.

These figures compare with 85 per cent of people nationally.

“If it’s about public health, how are these people who aren’t on reticulated supply to be catered for?,” Mai said.

FNDC did not respond when approached for comment.

Only three of Northland’s 17 council water supplies have been fluoridated in the last two decades.

The mineral was added to Kaikohe’s Monument Hill and Taraire Hills water treatment plants in 2007 and was also Kaitaia’s water from June 1996). Fluoridation across all three plants stopped in 2009.

Kaikohe/Ngāwhā, Kaitaia, Kawakawa/Moerewa, Kerikeri/Waipapa, Ōkaihau, Omanaia/Rawene, Opononi/Omapere and Waitangi/Paihia/Ōpua are FNDC’s eight reticulated drinking water systems.

Dargaville/Baylys, Glinks Gully, Mangawhai, Maungatūroto and Ruawai are KDC’s five reticulated systems.

Bream Bay, Mangapai, Maungakaramea and Whangārei/Hikurangi are WDC’s four systems.

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