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Red tape stops oral health benefits of water fluoridation for kids

3 September 2015
Thousands of children suffer tooth decay due to a failure to ensure water fluoridation.

Despite denials from anti-fluoride lobbyists and government red tape, a new study by University of Sydney researchers confirms the power of water fluoridation to reduce the burden of dental disease in children.

Mind the gap: kids' oral health is at risk.

The study also finds that water fluoridation is an equitable, cost-effective way to cut dental disease among children from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds that typically have higher dental disease rates.

Published in the International Journal of Dental Disease, the study assessed water fluoridation’s impact by comparing changes in dental disease among 5 to 7 year olds in three communities over a four year period (2008-2012).

Community water fluoridation, also known as artificial water fluoridation, is the addition of fluoride to drinking water with the aim of reducing tooth decay. This public health measure adjusts the natural fluoride concentration of water to that recommended for improving oral health.

In Australia, dental health has improved since water fluoridation began in the 1950s and Australians born after 1970 have, on average, half the level of tooth decay of their parents’ generation

Key findings

Researchers assessed changes in dental decay in three NSW communities: Wyong (fluoridated), Gosford City (newly fluoridated in 2008) and Byron/Ballina Shires (unfluoridated).

  • At baseline (2008) children in Wyong had a significantly lower level of dental disease than those in unfluoridated communities (Gosford and Byron/Ballina Shires).
  • Two years later (2010), there was no significant difference in the level of dental disease between the two communities with water fluoridation (Wyong and Gosford).
  • Four years later (2012) dental disease in the unfluoridated Byron/Ballina communities was nearly double that of the two communities with water fluoridation (Wyong and Gosford).

Anti-fluoride lobbyists claim water fluoridation is linked to a host of ailments, including low intelligence, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, osteoporosis and cancer.

There is no evidence to back these claims and the National Health and Medical Research Council recommends fluoride for all water supplies, saying it is a proven way to prevent cavities while causing no other ill health effects. Despite this more than 140 large towns across Australia remain without fluoridated water.

Red tape compounds dental decay problem in kids

The study’s lead author, Professor Anthony Blinkhorn says the result is “tens of thousands of children across Australia are suffering tooth decay because of the failure to ensure water supplies are fluoridated.

"Under current laws, regional and rural councils have the power to decide whether to fluoridate water supplies, despite the weight of evidence showing fluoride prevents decay and agreement from scientific and medical experts that fluoride is safe.”

While water fluoridation is strongly endorsed and recommended in the National Oral Health Plan, to which all states and territories are signatories, Queensland and NSW leave the decision-­making to local councils in rural and regional areas.

Professor Anthony Blinkhorn is NSW Chair of Population Oral Health at NSW Health and the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Dentistry.

He said NSW Health estimates that for every dollar spent on fluoridation the state saves $18 on associated health costs from ongoing dental decay, which continues over a patient’s ­lifetime.

Since January 2014 the Federal government has spent $433 million on dental problems for kids under the Child Dental Benefits Schedule for those who qualify for Family Tax Benefit A.

The Sunday Telegraph has launched a campaign to change laws that are preventing water fluoridation. In a recent news report the newspaper said: “We are asking state and territory governments to change legislation that gives power to regional councils or local water authorities, and instead mandate the fluoridation of water in all towns above a population of 1000 people.”

A change to the NSW Fluoridation of Public Water Supplies Act 1957 could give the NSW Minister for Health jurisdiction to direct water authorities to fluoridate the water.

Such an amendment, called the Fluoridation of Public Water Supplies Amendment Bill 2013, was proposed by Labor in 2013 but knocked back by Mike Baird’s Coalition government.

Dan Gaffney

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