The science is unequivocal: fluoridation promotes good oral health. So why are so many people still scared of it? Susan Chenery talks to Dr Michael Foley from the Australian Dental Association about his experiences fighting the good fight.
Things are rotting in the state of fluoridation in Queensland. Now known by some as “the toothless state”, it has been abandoning mandatory water fluoridation since LNP leader Campbell Newman placed it in the hands of local governments in 2012 and made it voluntary.
Now around three quarters of councils don’t fluoridate water.
Since the legislation changed, more than 20 councils have voted against it— including those that never fluoridated in the first place. This has left a little over a million Queenslanders without access to water with fluoride added. Dentists say that it is not hard to tell which part of the state a person comes from.
Dr Michael Foley, spokesperson for the Australian Dental Association (ADA), believes that dental health has been placed in the hands of those on local councils who do not have the expertise to make qualified assessments.
“Water is a major public health measure and should be a Federal Government responsibility,” says Dr Foley. “This is where high-level public health expertise lies.”
In addition, he says councils are being bombarded by emails from highly organised and coordinated anti-fluoride campaigners. “The head guy in the world is called Paul Connett, a retired chemistry professor in upstate New York. [Connett and his supporters] will use every argument they can possibly think of. They accuse water fluoridation for being responsible for every medical condition of mankind, from brittle bones to kidney disease to heart disease to allergies.”
Foley says that any town “from north Queensland to California to New Zealand” that is considering or debating fluoridation will be targeted and inundated with slick and convincing information. “I tell my students I defy anybody to look at their website and not have doubts about fluoridation. It is really really slick. It is rubbish, of course. They will pull out an animal study or some dodgy study from China. And they also say it is against human rights.”
“Water is a major public health measure and should be a Federal Government responsibility. This is where high-level public health expertise lies.” —Dr Michael Foley, Australian Dental Association
Prior to a recent debate in Ingham, North Queensland, Foley discovered there had been a letterbox drop. “Brochures that had all this stuff about how Hitler used fluoridation in his concentration camps to subdue the Jews. It would be laughable if it wasn’t people’s health being affected by it.”
Local councillors are being bamboozled, he believes. “They are good, decent people doing a tough job. But they know nothing about public heath, nothing about science and nothing about fluoridation. And for every letter that councillors get from the ADA or the AMA or the Health Department, they will get 10 or 50 from these people in a relentless campaign. Most councillors just throw up their hands in horror thinking that the science is divided. They are very easy prey to a relentless scaremongering campaign of misinformation.”
One councillor in Ingham had a daughter on dialysis with serious kidney disease. “So of course she was immediately scared when the spokesperson for the anti-fluoridation cause used the same arguments—from cancer to every disease—and thought [her disease] was from fluoride in the water.”
In fighting his rearguard action on behalf of the ADA, Foley has found himself in a full-scale war.
When Lismore Council put it to the vote in May last year, Dr Kerry Chant, the NSW chief health officer, arrived to support the proven scientific facts.
The anti-fluoride people had run a vicious campaign. “One of the nutters threatened her with sarin gas,” recalls Dr Foley. “The mayor spoke up on behalf of fluoridation, got out of her car and had the car door slammed on her head. One of the local dentists, Brendan White, spoke out on behalf of the ADA in Lismore and he had his rubbish bins overturned, he had rocks thrown on his house, he had abusive phone calls. He even had a female protester come up to his private dental practice when he had patients in the waiting room, and urinate on his front door step.”
Lismore voted against fluoride. Even though (according to a local survey)Northern Rivers children have the worst teeth in the state of NSW.
“[There were] brochures that had all this stuff about how Hitler used fluoridation in his concentration camps to subdue the Jews. It would be laughable if it wasn’t people’s health being affected by it.”—Dr Michael Foley, Australian Dental Association
Dr Foley—who says he has never made a dollar defending fluoridation—has been a moving target. “Over the last 10 or 15 years, I have had endless amounts of threats: threats to sue me, hang me, castrate me, jail me. It is just how these people operate.”
Even politicians, he says, get subjected to “all this abuse, this relentless campaign.”
In Ingham, he debated his nemesis Merilyn Haines, president of Queenslanders for Safe Water, Air and Food, who claims that fluoride is used as insecticide to kill cockroaches and ants.
For his trouble, Haines sent a seven-page formal complaint to the Premier, the Opposition Leader, the Health Minister, the Opposition Health Spokesman, her local MP, and the Director General of QLD Health, “insisting that I be reprimanded, demoted, disciplined. It was not pleasant getting this complaint where she wanted me disciplined and demoted. She also insisted that Queensland Health promise that I would never speak or write on behalf of water fluoridation again.”
As always, says Foley, it is the most vulnerable people who will pay for this war being waged on water. “Often most of the tooth decay is seen in the elderly and in disadvantaged people from a low socio-economic background. People who are poor and frail and don’t have the ability to really floss their teeth well. People whose diets have changed or people who are on lots of medication that dries their mouths.” Oh and the taxpayer. “Poor dental health that is largely preventable ends up with somebody paying for it. Probably taxpayers.”
Sadly, there has never been a better time to be a Queensland dentist.