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Fluoride: Portland City Council poised to back water treatment

September 06, 2012|By Kim Murphy
  • The Portland City Council held a public hearing on fluoridating the city's water supply. Portland is the last remaining large city in the US that has yet to add fluoride to its water.
The Portland City Council held a public hearing on fluoridating the city's… (Anacleto Rapping / Los Angeles…)

Cities have wrestled with the notion of fluoridating water supplies to improve dental health for more than half a century. In the early days,  naysayers warned that fluoride was conceived as a secret Communist weapon to pacify unruly populations. Advocates have pleaded that parents are losing the war on cavities and need community backup.

The latest battleground is Portland, Ore., the largest U.S. city that doesn’t put fluoride in its municipal water supply. That appears about to change: A majority of the City Council has signaled a willingness to vote next week in favor of an ordinance to inject low levels of fluoride into drinking water, heading off a promised ballot initiative seeking to prevent it.

The debate in free-thinking Portland has been a contest between the overwhelming weight of mainstream medical organizations -- which have weighed in on fluoridation as a safe and effective way of promoting dental health -- and concerns  of some critics about possible links to lower IQ and bone cancer at high doses, as well as  citizens’ right to choose what is in their water.

On Wednesday, more than 250 people packed the City Council chambers and three overflow rooms in a four-hour hearing so intense that Mayor Sam Adams twice threatened to evacuate unruly spectators.

Outside, protesters carried signs warning of “Zombie Nation,” and “Fluoride Is a Trick, It Will Make You Sick.”

“This process today is a sham. This is being railroaded through. We are the largest unfluoridated city in the country, so we are squarely in the cross hairs, and they are ramming this down our throats without any democratic process whatsoever,” Kimberly Kaminski, director of Oregonians for Safe Drinking Water, said in an interview before the hearing.

A representative of the West Slope Water District, one of several wholesalers that buys water from Portland to serve surrounding communities, complained that the city is moving forward without allowing citizens outside the city to have a voice.

“As a customer of Portland for over 90 years, we are appalled that no action has been taken to consult or advise us in any way on this issue,” the district said in a letter read to the council.

Since the 1940s, cities across the U.S. have been gradually moving toward  fluoridating water — a step that the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and most major medical organizations say is  largely risk-free and reduces tooth decay.

Several towns have moved to reverse that decision in recent years, especially since a widely cited study of naturally occurring fluoride in China that was, at levels higher than those used for public fluoridation in the U.S., linked to slightly lower IQs in children and a rare form of bone cancer known as osteosarcoma.

But the trend has been toward expanding fluoridation, and Portland remains an outlier. According to the CDC, nearly three-fourths of all Americans, about 204 million people, are on fluoride-treated community water systems. The number has grown by 42 million since 2000.

Supporters on Portland’s progressive-minded City Council have framed the issue as a step toward public health and social justice.

According to testimony at Thursday’s hearing, four in 10 Latino children and seven in 10 African-American children in Oregon — where less than a quarter of state residents have access to fluoridated water — have untreated dental decay.

“Frequently we see a child, their hair is healthy, their skin is healthy, their eyes are healthy, they walk with a normal gait. Otherwise they’re fine. And then they open their mouth, and we see this: what we call rampant decay throughout the mouth … and abscesses,” said Michael L. Plunkett, a public health dentist who works with low-income families.

“Seven percent of the children [younger than] 5 in our program got their dental care in a hospital operating room under general anesthesia because their dental problem was too severe to treat otherwise,” he said.

The coalition backing the fluoride plan, Everyone Deserves Healthy Teeth, includes more than 75 organizations, educational institutions and labor unions. The Oregon Medical Assn. and  the Oregon Dental Assn. are among them. 

Kylie Menagh-Johnson, who heads the coalition, acknowledged in an interview that Oregon voters have rejected water fluoridation  three times. But she said the last ballot measure, in 1980, was decided with a very low voter turnout and characterized by a “misinformation campaign” by the anti-fluoride lobby.

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