15 Apr 2024

Far North councillors vote 9 to 1 to seek delay in adding fluoride to water supply

1:55 pm on 15 April 2024
Michael Feyen urges councillors to oppose fluoridation of Far North town water supplies. Photo: Peter de Graaf / RNZ

Michael Feyen urges councillors to oppose fluoridation of Far North town water supplies. Photo: RNZ / Peter de Graaf

This story has been updated to reflect the length of the Nelson City Council extension and add details about an extension for Whangārei.

Far North District councillors have voted nine-to-one to seek a two-year delay in adding fluoride to some town water supplies.

In 2022, then director-general of health Sir Ashley Bloomfield ordered 14 councils around the country to fluoridate some or all of their public water supplies.

That included the Far North District Council, which was supposed to start adding fluoride to Kaitāia and Kerikeri water by 30 June this year - less than three months away.

At Thursday's meeting in Kaikohe, however, councillor Hilda Halkyard-Harawira put forward a motion seeking an extension of that deadline to June 2026.

She was backed by fellow Māori ward councillor Babe Kapa, while about 25 members of the public crowded into the council chambers of Kaikohe holding placards with messages such as "Our rates, our say" and "Poison on tap".

Addressing the meeting in te reo Māori, while her words were translated on a screen, Halkyard-Harawira said one of her main concerns was the cost of fluoridation.

"I don't think there's enough funding for this … We are poor here in the Far North, people are homeless, we can't afford it."

Halkyard-Harawira said the money would be better spent on addressing poor drinking water quality in some areas, or improving dental services.

She also had concerns about "the mauri and mana of our water", and believed the council needed to "go into the community" to gauge their views on fluoridation.

Addressing the campaigners in the public gallery, she said: "I have read what you have written. Some things I didn't agree with, but I support you".

Members of the public who spoke at the meeting included Deb Rock-Evans of Russell, from the group Northland Watch.

She urged councillors to seek a delay, saying a precedent had been set by Nelson City Council, which had requested and been granted an eight-month extension until 2024.

Whangārei District Council had also applied for more time, she said.

A spokeswoman for the Whangārei council said, however, a proposal to ask for an extension had not yet been brought before councillors for consideration.

Rock-Evans said forging ahead with fluoridation posed a legal risk to the council, due to a High Court ruling in 2021 that found the director-general of health had failed to consider the Bill of Rights when he made the orders.

"The Far North District Council risks being caught in a legal dispute between the Ministry of Health and opponents of fluoridation," she said.

The motion was carried with nine votes in support and one against.

Addressing the anti-fluoride campaigners, kahika (mayor) Moko Tepania said he loved seeing people with placards turn out in large numbers at council meetings.

Moko Tepania, Far North District councillor and teacher at Te Kura Kaupapa Maori o Kaikohe.

Far North District mayor Moko Tepania. Photo: Northern Advocate / supplied

"That's democracy in action," he said.

He also made an apology to a dog lobby group, Bay of Islands Watchdogs, whose members had been wrongly barred from taking their placards into an earlier meeting.

"That was incorrect. All groups should be treated equally," he said.

Earlier in the meeting, however, controversy erupted when several members of the public objected to Māori ward councillors addressing the meeting in te reo - even though those councillors were the very ones calling for fluoridation to be put on hold.

Tepania strongly defended their right to speak Māori, saying it was one of the country's official languages.

A written translation in English was provided both via the meeting livestream and on screens in the council chambers, he added.

Following the meeting, Michael Feyen - who spoke on behalf of the anti-fluoride campaigners - said the vote was "a good start".

"I would've liked them to ask for a moratorium on it. The way it was worded it was just like they want a little bit of extra time before they implement it … but it's a fantastic day I think, they're falling into line with many other councils around the country who are realising the folly of going on blind and just doing what the government says."

Feyen, a former Horowhenua mayor who now lives in north Hokianga, said he was grateful to the Māori ward councillors, Halkyard-Harawira and Kapa, who had put the motion forward.

As previously reported, if no extension was granted, and the council did not fluoridate its Kaitāia and Kerikeri water supplies, it could face a fine of up to $200,000 under the Health Act - plus $10,000 a day for ongoing non-compliance.

In the Whangārei district, setting up fluoridation equipment at two treatment plants was expected to cost $4.6 million plus $100,000 each year in running costs.

However, a significant proportion of the set-up cost could be covered by a Ministry of Health subsidy.

The costs for the Far North were not immediately known.

In 2021 a new law took the responsibility for decisions around fluoridation away from local councils and gave it to the Ministry of Health.

When announcing the 14 councils' fluoridation orders the following year, Sir Ashley said it was a safe, affordable and effective method of preventing tooth decay.

"Community water fluoridation benefits everyone, but especially children, Māori, Pasifika and our most vulnerable," he said.

Fluoride existed naturally in air, soil, seawater, plants and food, and fluoridated water was safe to drink, including for babies and the elderly.

Bloomfield said the New Zealand Oral Health Survey 2009, the most recent one available, found children and adolescents had 40 percent less tooth decay in areas with fluoridated water.

  • Northland's first major fluoride-treated drinking water likely next year
  • Council pushes ahead with fluoridation, despite High Court ruling
  • Bid to force14 councils to fluoridate heads back to court
  • Far North dentist disputes effectiveness of fluoridation
  • Far North wants to delay fluoridation despite abysmal tooth decay figures