City of Portland Measure 26-151
Mandates fluoridation of Portland’s water: YES
Who knew that a seemingly humdrum public health issue could provoke so much drama, passion and electoral skulduggery?
Portland is the largest city in the U.S. with an unfluoridated water supply. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 74 percent of Americans now have fluoridated water, fluoridation reduces cavities by about 25 percent over a person’s lifetime, and $1 invested in fluoridation saves $38 in future dental costs.
It seems so straightforward. The fact is, the fluoridation of drinking water has been a bugaboo among political extremists for decades. Half a century ago, fluoridation was a communist conspiracy—or so right-wingers claimed. Today, Portland lefties see it as unnecessary and even dangerous.
And in Portland, suspicions about plans to add fluoride to the water supply had reason to give politicians pause: Portlanders said “no” to fluoride in 1956 and 1962. In 1978, voters approved fluoridation only to overturn it two years later.
The debate on both sides has been problematic. The pro side—led by Healthy Kids, Healthy Portland—has tried to rig the vote, elevated self-righteousness to new heights and played the race card.
The anti-fluoride crowd, represented by Clean Water Portland, has erected a tie-dyed political yurt big enough to include the wacky left and the Tea Party while misrepresenting the science.
But supporters have given the anti-fluoride side reason to heat up the conspiracy-tinged tone of their rhetoric.
As a 21st-century issue in Portland, fluoride materialized as if from nowhere last year. And the City Council’s unanimous vote in 2012 to add the controversial substance to our water was Machiavellian at best.
A pro-fluoride group made false statements about whether it was quietly pushing the issue within City Hall. (They said “no” while busily doing just that.) The City Council vote looked very much like a cynical grasp at a legacy for outgoing Mayor Sam Adams and Commissioner Randy Leonard, who had previously expressed zero interest in the topic.
The City Council then maneuvered the issue onto the May 2013 ballot as quickly as possible, so as to wrong-foot opponents who had succeeded in forcing a vote on it in 2014.
Proponents’ claims that they have widespread support from “communities of color”—when, as reported by WW, the pro-fluoride campaign has paid out $143,000 to eight minority groups that endorsed the measure—raises troubling questions.
But bad behavior and circumstances are not enough to override the basic facts.
Peer-reviewed studies, which have themselves been studied ad nauseam, have shown that fluoride is beneficial to children’s teeth.
Data also show that the incidence of untreated tooth decay in Oregon ranks in the top 10 percent of all states while the state’s rate of fluoridation is third-lowest.
Fluoridation is not a panacea. People still get cavities despite fluoridated water. And there are medically vulnerable citizens who may have legitimate concerns about how fluoride would affect them.
But most of the critics’ objections do not stand up to scrutiny.
Among the hundreds of fluoride studies, there is little evidence that fluoridation is harmful. Here’s how the CDC put it: “The weight of peer-reviewed scientific evidence does not support an association between water fluoridation and any adverse health effect or systemic disorders.”
The most common side effect—the staining of teeth, called fluorosis—is primarily cosmetic and takes more fluoride than Portland will add. The fluoride injected into water is not, as critics claim, toxic waste but a byproduct of mining other minerals.
Fluoridation critics cannot produce any nefarious explanation for why government scientists, public health officials and dentists all support fluoridation.
The biggest financial support on the “yes” side is coming from the Northwest Health Foundation, which has nothing to gain financially from fluoridation. Other key supporters include the Oregon and Washington dental associations, which are acting against their own economic interests. Dentists make money from cavities. If their professional associations were looking out for their members’ wallets, they’d endorse a “no” vote.
Unlike the pharmaceutical industry, which has sometimes pushed drugs that are ineffective or unsafe to bolster profits, nobody’s going to get rich from fluoridation.
It’s tempting to characterize this campaign as mainstream science versus the lunatic fringe, but that would be unfair.
The fact is, the health benefits of fluoridation would accrue primarily to those who have bad teeth now—disproportionately low-income and minority children.