High Court judgement: Fluoridation work paused

Rotorua's council has paused work to fluoridate its central and eastern water supplies. Photo: Laura Smith.

Rotorua Lakes Council has paused work to fluoridate its water supply after a preliminary High Court ruling the mandate to do so is unlawful.

"I am resisting the urge to say 'I told you so'," a councillor who opposed the government mandate - and wanted to hold off on following it after New Health New Zealand sought a judicial review - said to his colleagues on Wednesday.

The decision on whether public drinking water supplies should be fluoridated was removed from local government jurisdiction in 2021. It aimed to improve poor dental health.

Then-director general of health Sir Ashley Bloomfield directed Rotorua's council in July last year to fluoridate its central and eastern water supplies by April 30, 2024. The council was legally bound to comply.

Non-compliance carried a fine of up to $200,000 and up to $10,000 per day for continuing offences.

While there was uncertainty over the future of the directive, elected members in August agreed to proceed with infrastructure and design work but also asked staff to gather further information from the Ministry of Health on the safety and legality of it.

Councillor Robert Lee wanted to postpone the work while waiting on the High Court judgement.

"We all should have a right to refuse medication," Lee said at the time.

A report for that meeting said the council had not been directed to fluoridate its six other supplies.

The judgment on 10 November found while Bloomfield did consider scientific evidence to meet the Health Act, he did not consider the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.

At a council meeting on Wednesday, Lee said: "I am resisting the urge to say, 'I told you so'."

Interim chief executive Gina Rangi said the council paused work on the directive while it waited on clarification on its legal position. Lee - and some 25 members of the public in attendance - clapped this.

Among the public was Rotorua resident Teresa Brown, who presented a 220-signature petition opposing fluoridation at the meeting.

She outlined concerns, which included fears of the impact on human and environmental health, describing it as a "hazardous toxic substance".

In a press release on 17 November the ministry said it would continue to support community water fluoridation as a safe, effective and affordable way of preventing tooth decay.

It also noted the preliminary decision related to the directive process, not on the public health merits of fluoridation or whether fluoridation can be justified.

Councillor Robert Lee wanted to postpone following the directive. Photo: Laura Smith.

The council's infrastructure and environment general manager Stavros Michael told Local Democracy Reporting the court decision did not revoke the directive and the council sought clarification from the ministry about how it should now proceed.

He said the ministry had not formally written to the council but verbally advised the court decision was being considered.

In the meantime, central government funding assistance for the installation of fluoridation systems remained in place - Rotorua's council had spent $200,000 to date on design and testing and would claim costs.

Michael said the ministry responded to elected members' request for information around legality and concerns about potential health risks.

"The [ministry] advised that its directive was legally binding and it remained confident and consistent in its advice that fluoride in drinking water, at the suggested concentrations, does not represent a material health risk to the community."

He said the ministry said it was committed within its statutory responsibilities to monitor national and international evidence to ensure that its instructions are appropriate and evidence-based.

No decision on accepting and implementing the tendered-for works had been made.

The ministry has been approached for further comment.

Future Development Strategy approved

In Wednesday's meeting, the council also adopted the Rotorua Future Development Strategy 2023-2053.

It will be reviewed every three years and a new one developed every six years.

The strategy outlined growth for housing and businesses over the next 30 years and would be used to guide council investment decisions.

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.

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