Dentists concerned as Queensland lags nation on fluoride in drinking water

Maria Chatfield was stunned when she took her four children for a routine dental check earlier this year only for the dentists to marvel at the condition of their teeth. 

What she did not know was her family’s relocation from Kiama in New South Wales to Cairns meant they would no longer have access to fluoridated drinking water and its oral health benefits.

“I totally took that for granted, completely, until my children went to the clinic,” Ms Chatfield said.

“They called all the fellow dentists in to see the kids’ X-rays because they were showing off and saying, ‘Look at these kids’ teeth, you can tell they’re from Sydney’.”

While about 90 per cent of the Australian population has access to fluoride in drinking water, only 72 per cent of Queenslanders do.

Queensland councils have the power to decide whether their communities’ drinking water should be fluoridated, and 51 of the state’s 77 local government areas have no fluoridated drinking water supplies as a result.

Other major centres without fluoridated water include Bundaberg, Rockhampton and Hervey Bay.

Dentists say regions without fluoridated water experience much higher rates of tooth decay.(ABC News)

Ms Chatfield was most concerned the lack of fluoridated water would be particularly problematic for her youngest child, aged eight, who is on the autism spectrum and was born with an underdeveloped jaw.

“He has to have extra orthodontic treatment that a normal child wouldn’t have anyway because of his particular medical conditions and now it’s exacerbated by the fact he lives in Far North Queensland,” she said.

Fresh study adds to evidence

Queensland dentists and researchers point to “overwhelming scientific literature and evidence” in support of fluoridation as they make the case for the practice to be rolled out more widely.

A population-based study from the University of Queensland published this week has found no link between water fluoridation and adverse effects on children’s brain development.

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Cairns dentist laments lost decade of water fluoride benefits

“It has been documented that children in Cairns, Mackay, and other non-fluoridated areas have much poorer oral health than children living in fluoridated Townsville,” the study’s lead researcher, Professor Loc Do, said.

Matthew Nangle, president of the Australian Dental Association’s Queensland branch, said politicians should be pushed “as to why they are not interested in water fluoridation in these areas when there are such huge benefits in terms of public health”.

“Historically, Queensland itself has had very poor levels of water fluoridation — the lowest in the country — and also the highest levels of dental decay in children and young adults,” Dr Nangle said.

“Why this is such a political hot potato, I don’t know. It doesn’t make sense to me.”

A wide elevated image of a city centre intersection in Cairns
The Cairns region with a population of more than 166,000 people does not have a fluoridated town water supply.(ABC Far North: Christopher Testa)

Some councils still unconvinced

One of the consequences of leaving the decision to fluoridate up to local councils is some are reluctant to take on the cost of adding the fluoride, saying oral health is a responsibility of the state government.

The Cairns region’s population in the most recent census population figure was 166,943, but the council this week said its position on fluoridation had not changed since 2016.

Its decision not to fluoridate the city’s water at the time was based on a community survey of 6,446 people.

Fluoridation was supported by 48 per cent of participants, while 39 per cent were opposed.

The strongest opposition was from those aged 85 and older.

“The overwhelming majority of those who opposed fluoride believe that ingesting fluoride would harm their physical health,” a council spokeswoman said.

A Queensland Health spokesperson said councils were “encouraged to supply their communities with fluoridated water”.

What if your water isn’t fluoridated?

There are limited options for families to access fluoride if it is not added to their town water supply.

Fluoride tablets are no longer recommended or sold in Australia due to the risk of dental fluorosis and many brands of bottled water are fluoride-free.

Dr Nangle recommended “keeping on with regular oral hygiene maintenance, brushing twice a day, and making sure you’re getting exposed to fluoride through toothpaste, mousses and oral hygiene products like that”.

Dental instruments, toothbrushes, mouth wash and sunglasses on a tray.
Studies have shown Queensland communities without fluoridated water have worse levels of tooth decay than those that can access fluoridated water.(Catalyst)

Ms Chatfield said she was “appalled” the decision was made for her community based on a survey rather than scientific evidence.

But she said her children were among the lucky ones as “white middle-class kids who brush their teeth twice a day and get to eat good food”.

As a high school teacher, she saw less privileged children struggle with tooth decay and described the lack of fluoridation as “almost discriminatory”.

“[Some parents] haven’t got the agency,” she said.

“They wouldn’t know how to advocate and go to their local council and go to whoever, to the government, and say ‘this is not good’.”

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