Well, this morning’s news was a shock. The local council (Hamilton City Council) has decided to stop fluoridating our water supply (see Fluoride to be removed from Hamilton’s water supply).
(Note: If you are sufficiently interested that Waikato Times article has an attached poll where you can express your view. Early votes ran against the council decision, but subsequently the anti-fluoridators seem to have organised to fix that).
Yes, I know. I should have paid attention. But I am probably pretty typical in my apathy about local body politics.
I did know something was afoot – after all an old friend of mine had told me months ago he was part of a campaign to stop fluoridation. But as we had been through all that 7 years ago I thought the format would be the same.
In 2006 a citizen referendum decisively supported continuation of fluoridation in Hamilton’s water supply. That referendum was preceded by much public debate in which supporters and opponents actively presented their arguments.
So, I think I (and other Hamiltonians) can be excused for thinking we were running up to similar referendum held alongside the next local body elections. But we were mistaken. The Waikato Times tells us how it was done:
“The decision, just reached after less than an hours’ debate, followed a lengthy tribunal which heard the weight of public submissions, many from outside the city, argue for the removal of hydrofluorosilicic acid from the water supply.”
Well, I guess that is the price of apathy. But, given the history, I can’t help feeling rather duped. In my mind there are two issues:
This time the issue seems to have taken place behind closed doors – at least figuratively. Apparently submissions are on the City Council web site (and I will certainly be perusing those as the Times article implies they were one-sided). But the public discussion has been pretty minimal – it certainly didn’t register with me. And as a chemist, with some background in researching carbonate apatites (and the role of fluoride in them) I should normally have noticed.
The vote seems rather funny – 7 to 1 to stop fluoridation. With five councillors withdrawing from the vote – 3 councillors “removed themselves after declaring a conflict with their district health board roles.” Bloody hell, one might have expected these three councillors to have a better understanding than the others.
And the question of understanding also raises issues. How informed were the 7 councillors who voted to stop fluoridation? How representative were the submissions they presumably took note of? And, considering the importance of health issues like this, shouldn’t they have done more to get advice from reliable professionals?
In fact, I really wonder if a local council is the right sort of body to consider such important health issues.
In public discussion of these issues the science is often problematic. Both sides on the fluoridation issue will present sciency sounding arguments and these are often difficult for the layperson to consider objectively. Just like the climate change issue. However, given the importance of the fluoridation issue and the fact that a representative body is charged with making the decision it is important for public discussion to at least have the opportunity to be informed scientifically.
In this case I don’t believe the public was adequately informed – and I suspect that neither were the council members. (I really must check out the submissions they received).
The other aspect of these sort of public issues is the way that scientific knowledge gets used. Often pseudo scientific arguments are used. Strongly motivated people will cherry pick, search for information, misrepresent information, to support their firmly held views. Yes, I know – this is only human – we are all prone to confirmation bias. But that is why it is important to make sure there is adequate representation of views. And to make sure professional experts make submissions and give their comments on the submissions of others.
Finally, this is a health issue – and like most health issues it is the most vulnerable who have the most at stake, but usually have the least opportunity to take part in decisions. It will be the children of the economically most disadvantaged families who suffer the decline in dental health. Not only because of weakened dental enamel but also because they are also the people less likely to be receiving adequate dental care as they grow.