1080 and Water Fluoridation: Opponents who drink from the same anti-science trough

I had a pretty gnarly rental in 2014. Situated in what one might euphemistically label as the ‘economically diverse’ melting pot of Hamilton East. It had an asbestos ceiling, rotting internal walls* and was nestled within an even less entrancing cinder block dump. Alas, it served its purpose, perfect for someone wishing to live cheap but not far from the local University, a place to myself (however terrible) where I could potter about with my postgraduate studies.

I was also a ‘paid troll’ of the pro-fluoride movement, or so it was claimed; which must have made my humble lodging all the more bemusing to anti-fluoride campaigners who used the societies register to stake out my whare. Surely I had the option of living somewhere much nicer by virtue of my shadowy, government funded campaign to poison New Zealand’s drinking water? After all, I had been making a very handsome sum of money fighting, keyboard in hand, the good people at Fluoride Free New Zealand. Yet despite someone burning down our neighbour’s garage one lazy weekend afternoon, or the upstairs occupants running a 24 hour Colombian-style drug cartel, I apparently chose to continue living in a shitty unit, in a shitty block, surrounded by (mostly, but not all) shitty neighbours.

The great academic / scientific / government / whatever conspiracy

Nonsensical accusations such as those directed at myself or other skeptics, serve an important function for people denying the scientific consensus on something. Whether it was Community Water Fluoridation (CWF) then or 1080 now, these opponents have a predisposition to believe, uncritically, accusations of corruption occurring among their adversaries. Such discourses mutate as they become more publicly widespread, ‘True Believers’ emerge, people whose opposition to a particular government initiative quickly morph into an impenetrable form of group-think. Such conspiracies then flourish without any attempt by their proponents to fact check the veracity of such ridiculous claims.

This brings us to the current climate of loud but hopefully evanescent anti – 1080 hysteria where we again see the presence of ludicrous conspiratorial conjecture. As Cody Knightley (a local anti – 1080 campaigner) laid out in a recent homemade video, the Department of Conservation (DoC) has become the Department of Corruption, the Department of Contamination, the Department of Conspiracies (sic) and so on. Such allegations resonate strongly with different sections of the public, specifically hunters like Knightley and a few hoodwinked urban dwellers.

But where is the evidence?

Contradictory positions

Another commonality is the desire to spread whatever information might help the cause, no matter how much it contradicts a previous line of advocacy. Anti -CWF campaigners repeatedly claim that fluoride is a deadly neurotoxin, but then inexplicably advocate it be used in higher doses in toothpaste and / or as part of school wide toothbrushing programs. The same people claiming 1080 does not work will also claim it’s cruel due to its indiscriminate nature (so, it works?!), while others claim the bush is not at risk from predators but then advocate increases in funding to trap supposedly non-existent predators.

Contrast that with conservation group Forest & Bird, who alongside Federated Farmers (the most unlikely of bedfellows) operate the ‘1080 Facts’ website. Forest & Bird readily admit that a small number of Kea appear to have died as a consequence of 1080 operations. They balance this against how pest control, overall, has allowed Kea populations to rebound across the South Island, along with every other native species. For lay people such as ourselves, this should signal the more credible position; one side contradicts itself with a scatter gun approach to any number of evidence-free claims, while the other is transparent in its approach noting that not every aspect of their stance is without its own risks.

Building the Strawman

A favourite jibe of anti-fluoride campaigners has been to misrepresent the CWF message for something it never was and our local 1080 protesters are no different. A typical provocateur might say “If it’s safe, why not put a teaspoon in a glass of water and let us know how you get on?” Such faulty reasoning attempts to play on the toxic nature of such chemicals in their most raw, undiluted forms. Consequently, its rejection is designed to place some doubt in the minds of those undecided; that is, the scientifically illiterate and anyone else unfamiliar with the rudimentary concepts found in a high school chemistry textbook.

Whether it is pellets of 1080 or a teaspoon of hexafluorosilicic acid (commonly used for CWF), the same general reasoning can be applied:

only a f**king idiot would add a 1080 pellet to a glass of water; and

only a f**king idiot would add HFA directly to a glass of water; furthermore

only a f**king idiot would add a teaspoon of chlorine to a glass of drinking water.

In any event, 1080 is aerially dropped at an increasingly lower rate; from 8kg of baits per hectare in the 1990s to less than 3kg of bait per hectare today and not directly into someone’s water tank. And with anything (absolutely everything), it is the dose that makes the poison. Too much or too little oxygen and you’re dead, too much water or too little water and you’re dead and so on. Our longevity does not rest with the complete removal of certain chemicals (afterall, fluoride is ubiquitous in our environment), but rather living within acceptable limits of exposure.

It is also demonstrably true that 1080 dilutes in running water and is biodegradable over a short period of time. It is water that lowers the toxicity of 1080, sufficiently so that there have been exactly zero deaths or hospitalisations attributed to aerial 1080 drops in New Zealand. Meanwhile, literally thousands more water samples taken following 1080 drops have confirmed that claims 1080 is unsafe are reliant on the most improbable of circumstances; such as a 50kg pregnant woman, continuously drinking 2l of water each day, directly from a source that supplies the water into a small and undiluted catchment where baits have been indiscriminately dropped.

Activism infused with Vested Interests  

If one was to pull the curtain back, there are some less genuine motives behind the activism. Anti – CWF group Fluoride Action Network has been soliciting private donations for over a decade while collecting $25,000 a year from Joseph Mercola, an internet entrepreneur who operates a controversial online store that sells yup, you guessed it, water filters!

1080 protesters appear to be a slightly more transparent bunch, Knightley made no attempt to hide the gun slung around his shoulder in his video, nor his frustration that DoC were effectively poisoning ‘decent’ venison meat. So beyond the anti 1080 hand flapping in some corners of suburbia, what emerges is a clearly identifiable reason why people in the bush hate 1080, it kills mammals such as deer en masse. Some studies suggest a by-kill rate among deer of up to 93%, now that sort of by-kill rate would suck for any hunter looking to fill their freezer.   

So, is it ethical?

Let’s start with what’s fair. Is it fair to take away a food source from people who have relied on it for multiple generations? That’s a tough call because even though mammals such as deer are introduced pests, it is also fair to say that hunting is now a 150 year old Kiwi pastime, well entrenched in the fabric of provincial New Zealand society. And in the current economic climate, we probably shouldn’t begrudge people like Knightley who view hunting as a means to circumvent paying extortion-level global market prices for meat at the supermarket.

Knightley also called DoC the Department of Cruelty, which raises another important question: Is it is ethical to use such a potent substance on the mammalian population? There is no doubt that 1080’s use is devastatingly effective. It makes my stomach churn just thinking about how the poison operates. But I also find it a less diminishing feeling than the guilt of standing idle and doing nothing. Evidence on the effectiveness of 1080 operations is as comprehensive as that of CWF programs, so casting such evidence side and abandoning  1080 operations would arguably be the less ethical approach.

It works, but does anyone care?

It should be glaringly obvious by now that efficacy is a moot point in public 1080 debates. As Department of Conservation’s Threatened Species Ambassador Nicola Toki eloquently explained, despite claims to the contrary, 1080 works remarkably well. There has also been detailed evaluations conducted on behalf of the New Zealand Government. Meanwhile, New Zealand-specific research covers everything from the regeneration of native flora and fauna associated with 1080 use, to the control of introduced pests through 1080 use and the safety of using 1080 in or near our freshwater systems.

There is simply no shortage of high quality academic literature supporting the ongoing use of 1080 operations. So until the wild claims of conspiracy are substantiated, are we going to risk the collapse of our ecosystem, and the extinction of our native wildlife, just for the sake of some wild venison?

Simply put, my challenge to Knightley et al. is this, show me bonafide evidence of corruption, contamination or conspiracies involving 1080 at the Department of Conservation and I will unequivocally reverse my position.

It’s the same challenge I issued to Fluoride Free New Zealand once upon a time, their response was to ban me from their Facebook page.

TL;DR:  1080 does the job you don’t, even if it sucks.

* A quick shout out to Quinovic for that little gem of a rental, your dereliction of duty when it came to the most basic maintenance meant you somehow outshone all the other epically shit slumlord agents operating across New Zealand.