Like other water supplies in New Zealand, Oamaru’s supply is required by law to meet a number of standards (Drinking Water Standards, Drinking Water Quality Assurance Rules and Drinking Water Aesthetic Values).
This is to ensure people don’t get sick or die from drinking water contaminated by bacteria and other pathogens.
Current status of the Oamaru supply
Oamaru’s water is primarily treated to meet the standards through membrane and ozone filtration. Some chlorine is also added to the supply to ensure the water remains uncontaminated as it makes its way through the network to people’s homes and businesses. The standards require us to keep levels within a set range. No other chemicals are currently added to the supply – including fluoride.
Directive to add fluoride
In July last year, the Director-General of Health directed the Waitaki District Council, under section 116E the Health Act, to add fluoride to the Oamaru water supply. Waitaki is one of 14 local authorities who were directed to fluoridate their water supplies.
In accordance with the Act, Council is required to ensure the Oamaru supply is fluoridated at the optimal levels by 30 June 2024. At this stage, it is anticipated that we will begin adding fluoride to the supply by March 2024 in order to meet the requirements.
The cost of doing so is more than $500,000, including construction of the building required to house the necessary equipment. This cost is being fully funded by Manatū Hauora (the Ministry of Health), following an application made by Council. The ongoing cost of adding fluoride to the supply will be around $40,000 and included in the Water Treatment Plant operating budgets.
Basis for the directive
Data for children aged 0-12 in the SDHB from 2022 show that 32% of children had experienced tooth decay by age five. Māori and Pacific children have significantly worse outcomes with 46% of Māori children experiencing decay by aged 5. The 2017-2020 NZ Health Survey showed that 47.6% of those 15+ in the SDHB had one or more teeth removed in their lifetime due to decay, an abscess, infection, or gum disease.
The Director-General of Health made the directive following consideration of the scientific evidence including Water fluoridation to prevent tooth decay (Cochrane Collaboration 2015), Health effects of water fluoridation: A review of the scientific evidence (PMCSA and Royal Society Te Apārangi 2014) and Fluoridation: An update on evidence (PMCSA 2021).
Why is Council not pushing back on the directive?
Regardless of any individual views on fluoridation, Council is required by law to comply with the Ministry’s directive. If Council doesn’t comply, it faces a fine of up to $200,000, followed by $10,000 per day of non-compliance.
We are aware that the independent organisation, New Health New Zealand, is seeking a judicial review of the Ministry’s directives to councils in the High Court. There has been some related publicity regarding the option for councils to seek an interim injunction that would put the directive on hold until the outcome of the judicial review is known.
The steps Council would be required to take to join this proceeding and to seek an interim injunction would be onerous, costly to ratepayers and the outcomes would not be guaranteed. Additionally, none of the other 13 councils under the directive have sought an injunction and the Ministry of Health has confirmed its orders remain active while the result of the lawsuit is pending. For these reasons, Council does not intend to pursue this option.