A national survey of public drinking fountains around Aotearoa, recently undertaken by RefillNZ, has shown that, on average, there is only one drinking fountain for every 3303 citizens and as few as one fountain for every 17,000 people in the worst-affected area.
“Although a few councils have really good drinking fountain coverage in their communities, it is very inconsistent and it’s becoming a serious public health issue,” says RefillNZ founder Jill Ford.
“When we don’t have ready access to free tap water, sugary drinks become the cheapest, most convenient option for people when they’re out and about.
“And this is contributing to our dreadful health statistics. New Zealand is number three for sugar consumption and the third most obese nation in the OECD, which is also a significant risk factor for complications of Covid-19.
“Sugary drinks are a contributing factor to weight gain and dental decay. Kiwis consume approximately 73 litres of sugary drink per person, per year.”
Ford says more drinking fountains could reduce the consumption of sugary drinks and bottled water, reducing both sugar-related health issues and plastic waste.
“Sugary drinks particularly affect the health of our children. In 2019, the number one reason why Kiwi kids were admitted to hospital was to have their teeth removed under general anaesthetic.”
The true cost for Kiwi kids and taxpayers
Dr Rob Beaglehole, spokesperson for the NZ Dental Association, says that the number one source of sugar for New Zealanders aged 0-30 years is sugary drinks, leading to a crisis in dental health for children and teenagers.
In 2019, 8700 children aged 0-14 years were admitted to hospital to have their teeth removed under general anaesthetic with thousands more on the waiting list. Children and young people are suffering high levels of pain that impacts on their ability to eat, speak, and sleep, he says.
“The procedure is costly, both financially and from a well-being perspective. Each operation costs around $4000, which is borne by taxpayers.
“But the health impacts are even more severe. Having healthy baby teeth is crucially important to the development of healthy permanent, adult teeth. When baby teeth are removed early, it affects the positioning of the incoming adult teeth.
“This can lead to lengthy, complex and expensive orthodontic treatment to correct the issues that arise, creating an additional burden on the public health system.
“One of the worst days in my dental career was when I had to remove 10 teeth in one surgical procedure from an 18 month-old baby, still in nappies,” says Beaglehole.
With one 600ml sugary drink containing up to 15 teaspoons of sugar – five times the recommended daily intake for a child according to the World Health Organisation – Beaglehole fully supports RefillNZ’s call for better access to public drinking fountains across the country as an important step in supporting Kiwis to drink tap water, rather than sugary drinks.
“There’s also mounting evidence that children who have had one general anaesthetic for teeth removal are much more likely to have further teeth removed.
“Because baby teeth are small, they abscess easily, which means these children are ending up in a cycle of pain, sleeplessness, and poor health outcomes due to the consumption of sugary drinks.
“Creating a sugar addiction at such a young age bodes poorly in terms of future health issues like obesity and type 2 diabetes, which are strongly linked to sugary drinks.”
Jill Ford has been working with councils around the country to add more drinking fountain locations and says that since completing the survey and sharing the results with local authorities, there has been an encouraging response, with councils looking for advice and support to improve drinking fountain infrastructure.
RefillNZ’s online map shows 2059 locations where you can fill reusable drink bottles for free with good quality tap water. These locations include cafes, local businesses, public libraries, and outdoor drinking fountains.
Ford says that since completing the survey and sharing the results with local authorities, there has been an encouraging response, with councils looking for advice and support to improve drinking fountain infrastructure.
“It’s great to see councils responding to the issue and taking positive action. There is some good work underway in some areas of the country, but more needs to be done,” she says.
Porirua community votes for more drinking fountains
In Porirua, the local community has been the driving impetus around recent investment in village drinking fountains by the council. Porirua City Council considers public drinking water fountains an important priority.
“Local communities in Porirua identified a need for accessible water in their communities to reduce the consumption of fizzy drinks,” says Mark Hammond, Parks Operations manager at Porirua City Council.
As a result, 10 new public water fountains were installed during 2019-20, he adds.
“The feedback from the community about the new water fountains has been very positive. We focused on placing them in easy to access locations with bold bright signage, so they are easy to spot. They’ve been a real hit.”
The Council is now planning to install more public water fountains, particularly in popular playgrounds and council sporting and community facilities. They are working to ensure the fountains are easy to spot and easy to access.
“While we have yet to finalise the numbers for the 2020-21 financial year, we’re hoping that there may be an additional three to eight fountains around the city by this time next year,” says Hammond.”