Cr Glenys Ritchie revealed herself as a “pro fluoride councilor” and was key to the 6/5 vote in favour of fluoridating. Also pictured (l-r) Cr Battista, Cr Houston and Cr Meineke.

by Robin Osborne at the ‘great debate’ on the fluoridation of Lismore’s water supply

“Sugar is the enemy,” said Vanessa Ekins, leader of Lismore City Council’s anti-fluoride group and proposer of a motion to overturn the 2006 decision to have Rous Water fluoridate Lismore’s reticulated supply.

But to her vocal supporters in the gallery at the 10 December meeting the real enemy was the bloc of six councilors who voted down Cr Ekins’s motion, and then endorsed a follow-up by Cr Neil Marks to advise NSW Health of Council’s wish to fluoridate.

Following the two 6/5 decisions, the gallery erupted with catcalls and cries of a travesty of democracy and the community being exposed to mass poisoning. One man, emulating the well-known Arab symbol of protest, tossed a shoe at the councillors.

Unlike George W. Bush, who had faced similar disrespect, Mayor Jenny Dowell, a fluoride supporter, was not amused. Nor was she next morning when interviewed by ABC, saying that opponents in the gallery had behaved poorly and shown scant respect for the community’s elected representatives.

The public access session heard a summary of the pro-fluoride case from local dentist Brendan White, a longstanding advocate on the subject of children’s oral health – “Dental problems are the biggest paediatric cause of hospital admissions,” he said.

Anti-fluoride pleas came from former mayor Ros Irwin who voted against fluoride in the past and continues to hold reservations about its safety and value as an oral health strategy.

Merilyn Haines from Queenslanders for Safe Water, Air & Food again spoke darkly of alleged health risks, including kidney disease and dental fluorosis. Urging a referendum, she said, “Councillors do not have a community mandate”, adding that if Council approved fluoridation and handed the matter to NSW Health it would be “putting a noose around the neck and then Health will pull the lever.”

In suggesting how the enemy, sugar, might be combatted, Cr Ekins advocated for more education programs, pre and post-natal, and a TV ad campaign in prime time. 

Half-way through the debate it became clear that the status quo would likely be the outcome: Cr Glenys Ritchie, often considered a fence-sitter on the issue, declared, “I am a pro-fluoride councilor,” adding that despite “millions of emails, YouTube and so on… I don’t think the opponents are an overwhelming lobby group from this LGA.”

From that point, you could put down your glasses, the race was over.

However, Cr Ritchie felt that an “opt-out” mechanism for households not wishing to consume fluoridated water should be looked at, perhaps even an extension of Rous Water’s current water tank subsidy (which is aimed only at storing non-potable water).

A week ago the Council had convened in a workshop to receive detailed briefings on the issue from both advocates and opponents of water fluoridation. In the interim they were inundated with lobbying material for and (mostly) against a measure that public health experts insist is both an economic and equitable way of helping protect the population’s oral health from an early age. (NSW Health Fluoride Fact sheet

Although 96 per cent of NSW has access to fluoridated water, the decision of whether to fluoridate rests with local, not state government. In recent weeks, Byron Shire has reaffirmed its decision not to fluoridate, Ballina will go ahead, and Casino is already fluoridated, with a further roll-out to Richmond Valley under way.

Lismore’s long-ago decision to fluoridate was delayed by legal action, in which Council finally triumphed, the delay due to organising the briefing workshop, and in a final roll of the dice, the need to debate Cr Ekins’s rescission motion.

In her ABC interview, Mayor Dowell was asked whether Council might consider extending fluoridation to the Nimbin community, whose water supply is managed by Lismore City, not by Rous.

She felt that councilors were exhausted by the process, and were unlikely to have “any appetite” to visit the Nimbin issue in a hurry.

Unfluoridated Nimbin may, however, have lessons to teach in the future, as the oral health of residents could be compared to that of their counterparts in the fluoridated areas of the Lismore LGA.

Voting For fluoridation were Crs Meineke, Ritchie, Battista, Marks, Scheibel and Dowell; Against – Crs Houston, Clough, Smith, Bennett and Ekins