Cr Comerford with then-mayor Col Meng doing final checks just days before fluoride was put into Mackay’s water system back in December 2009.
Cr Comerford with then-mayor Col Meng doing final checks just days before fluoride was put into Mackay’s water system back in December 2009. Lauren Reed

WHILE the turbulent fluoride debate raged around them, the Mackay Regional Council kept quiet about the fact there has been no fluoride added to the city's water supply since July.

An ongoing workplace health and safety issue at the Nebo Road Water Treatment plant has been blamed for residents in the Mackay city and urban area unknowingly quaffing non-fluoridated water.

The cover-up was revealed when Mayor Deirdre Comerford was forced to confirm the fact after a question from breakfast radio presenter Hammo on 4MK early yesterday morning. She later fronted media to defend the council's actions.

"As an elected member, and in hindsight, I would say it's not really the way we should have handled that," Cr Comerford said yesterday afternoon.

It cost council about $100,000 per year to fluoridate water in Mackay and Sarina, but only Mackay's drinking water was affected by the issue.

The mayor said she didn't know at the time of the incident in July that the flow of fluoride had ceased.

However, she did admit it was deceitful the public wasn't notified in January this year when the debate reignited and she was quizzed on her stance on fluoridation at a media conference.

Brisbane Dental School director Dr Michael Foley spoke with councillors in January about fluoride; he said they didn't mention to him that the fluoride wasn't being added to water.

"In fairness, the meeting wasn't about that. It was a brief meeting and I thought they had asked very good questions," he said.

The council wasn't under any legal obligations to inform the public, but the Department of Queensland Health was notified, he said.

Chief executive Barry Omundson said staff handled the workplace health and safety issue internally.

"Unfortunately the staff didn't appreciate the wider ramifications of that decision and it wasn't communicated to the mayor or me at the appropriate time," he said.

Cr Comerford chose not to answer when asked when she was informed, but did say, as mayor, she was going to take full responsibility.

The news that she didn't know might be hard to swallow for some residents, as this issue coincides with changes in state legislation that give local governments power to switch off fluoride.

Cr Comerford said the situation didn't look good.

"It was a controversial time when a new (state) government had come into office and they were having different thoughts about fluoride," she said. "I can't excuse the time it has taken to have these issues rectified."

 

FLUORIDATION

 

BRISBANE Dental School director Dr Michael Foley said in the long term six months without fluoride wouldn't have any real detrimental effects on people's health, but it was crucial for it to be switched back on.

"Fluoridation works best over many years," Dr Foley said.

"In the capital cities, and in areas like Townsville, it has worked best for people who have grown up drinking it.

"People who live in the areas (without fluoride) think that it's normal to have the amount of decay in their teeth, but it's not normal."

Anti-fluoride campaigner Ailsa Boyden could have saved herself about $600 if she had known fluoride wasn't being added to water. However she was delighted to hear the fluoride tap had been switched off.

"I use water very scarcely," she said.

"I buy it in casks of 30 litres which cost about $7.80."

Ms Boyden said she had several family members who needed extensive dental work, because they had been drinking fluoridated water when they were younger.

 

NO COMMENT

 

MACKAY Mayor Deirdre Comerford is normally a joy to interview.

She has had plenty of practice in front of the camera, and normally speaks in succinct sentences that make great quotes for print stories.

However, when I interviewed Cr Comerford after a council meeting at the end of January, I was left scrambling for a single quote that made any sense.

The fluoride debate had just reignited when the Cairns Regional Council ceased the flow to their residents.

The video from that council meeting media conference featuring a flustered mayor was uploaded to the Daily Mercury's website straight away. Even our video editor asked me: "What's happened to Deirdre? She normally speaks quite well."

Yesterday's media conference wasn't held in the usual area at the council building.

The mayor sat calmly behind her desk and was back to her professional best, until my final question.

One of the reasons I enjoy chatting to Cr Comerford is because she generally answers all questions put to her.

She might not give me all the information I am chasing for a story, but she will always give me something.

However, yesterday she chose not to comment on the crucial point of when she was notified about the fluoride issue. 

It was the first time she hasn't answered a question.



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