Dr Brendan White presenting at the fluoride forum in Byron Bay…

Unless public opinion has changed markedly in recent years, the majority of locals still supports the fluoridation of water supplies for the benefit of oral health: in 2005/8 a NSW Health survey showed 67 per cent of Byron Shire residents favouring fluoridation (61 in Lismore, 78 per cent in Ballina, 87 per cent statewide – today, 96 per cent of NSW water is fluoridated).

But that was certainly not the impression given by the makeup of the 200-plus crowd at the fluoride forum held at Byron Community Centre on 16 October.

After anti-fluoride activists proffered lobbying material (“No way a doctor would forcibly medicate”, “Artificial fluoridation is water pollution”, and so on), they took every opportunity to cheer speakers who supported their views and jeer those who did not.

In the former group were Brunswick Heads dentist Dr Marcus O’Meara, president of Queenslanders for Safe Water Merilyn Haines, dentist Dr Robert Gammal, former Lismore mayor and chair of Rous Water Dr Ros Irwin, and former Byron Shire councillor Richard Staples, also a Rous Water representative.

The pro-fluoride group comprised vice-president of the Australian Dental Association and Lismore dentist, Dr Brendan White, NSW Chief Health Officer, Dr Kerry Chant, Dean of University of Wollongong’s Medical School and nationally regarded toxicologist, Professor Alison Jones, and the Director of NSW Health’s environmental health branch, epidemiologist Professor Wayne Smith.

As ABC North Coast put it, with suitable understatement, “The mood at a public meeting in Byron Bay last night was overwhelmingly opposed to fluoridation.” 

In a debate that at times seemed like a shootout of contested academic papers at ten paces, the focus was on –

  • whether fluoridated water does help reduce dental decay, especially for children - NSW Health studies show this is so

  • whether fluoride can be delivered in a more targeted way, for example through toothpaste, gels, or supplements

  • whether better dental hygiene and healthier eating/drinking habits have made fluoridated water unnecessary

  • and whether fluoride, even at the widely approved concentration in water, will cause dementia, foetal damage, SIDS, brain damage, bone and other cancers, pineal gland damage… the list goes on.

Claims that fluoridation does not reduce decay rates but does pose serious health risks drew predictable applause from the gallery.

Responses (in this case, from Prof Jones) that there is nothing in the literature to suggest, say, adverse thyroid impacts, or the dismissing of a flawed Chinese study (by Prof Smith) were met with either silence, at best, or groans and boos.

Cheers followed every reference to fluoride as a poison, a toxic by-product of industry, a mass medication, and so on.

While the spectre of the forcibly-medicating Adolf Hitler again hung in the background, it was less obvious than usual. For a change, thalidomide got a guernsey – the medical profession had once endorsed it, too, remember?

The forum, broadcast live on Bay FM community radio, was the first of a series of ‘Critical Conversations’ planned by the Centre. Ably moderated by ABC broadcaster Mick O’Regan, it was the only public forum on fluoride to precede Byron Shire Council’s internal briefing on the issue next week.

Speaking to Echonetdaily before the forum, Mayor Simon Richardson said Council had already chosen not to introduce fluoride to the shire’s water and “if that view changed there would be more community consultation… Council’s position is clear, we don’t support water fluoridation, so until someone says otherwise, that’s our position.”

The Mayor added, “I guess councillors themselves, because it is topical around the region, want to have a session where experts on every side can give their advice freely without concerns of being abused from the back row. We want a workshop setting where we can ask questions.”

As reported by Lateline, Byron Council will debate the issue formally next week.