Keeping Portland’s teeth weird

Portlanders fight for their right to cavities

If the speed with which city commissioners pressed their plan to add fluoride to our drinking water seems fishy to you, you aren’t alone.

Portlanders fight for their right to cavities

Karl Kuchs/Vanguard Staff
If the speed with which city commissioners pressed their plan to add fluoride to our drinking water seems fishy to you, you aren’t alone.

Under the pretense of improving the metro area’s pitiful dental health, city council members voted earlier this month to tinker with Portland’s drinking water. Prior to the vote, commissioners acknowledged the heated controversy surrounding fluoridation but approved it nonetheless.

Framing it as a public health issue, they said it was their job as elected leaders to “do the right thing.”

Fluoride in the drinking water will help underage and underprivileged Portlanders the most, they insisted. So they fast-tracked their plan to have the fluoridation process up and running within two years. City commissioners defended their decision, saying they were swinging the bat for underserved communities.

Oral hygiene is an individual’s responsibility, they admitted, but what about those who lack the education or the resources? Superior to more targeted approaches like adding fluoride to the drinking water at public schools (which have shown to be ineffective), fluoridating Portland’s drinking water will strengthen teeth and prevent cavities across the metro area.

Their pleas failed to penetrate the opposition’s righteous anger.

With thumbs down, the angry mob that crowded City Hall on the day of the controversial vote hurled invectives at officials for unanimously agreeing to tamper with the city’s water supply.

The opposition to fluoridation comes in three flavors: There are those who cherish the purity of Portland’s drinking water and hate to see it messed with.

Some reject the preponderance of scientific evidence showing that the right amount of fluoride in drinking water is enormously beneficial and virtually harmless. They disdain peer-reviewed studies that uphold fluoridation, calling it “corporate science.”

And there are those who, leery of government overreach, cringe at this abuse of power by city officials, wondering what it all means. “Public Water/Public Vote,” their signs read.

Opponents to fluoridation are grateful to live in a city with some of the best drinking water in the nation and are willing to fight to protect it: Immediately following the vote, the anti-fluoride camp filed for referendum.

If you’ve ever had visitors staying with you from out of town, you’ve probably heard them praise the quality of our drinking water. Portland’s crystalline water runs sweet and pure, flowing from the Bull Run Watershed to your kitchen and bathroom fixtures by naturally occurring forces of gravity. It is chlorinated, though, with a touch of ammonia added to fix the chlorine solution.

Aside from chlorine and ammonia, adding enough fluoride to bring the levels at Bull Run up to .7 parts per million—all water has some naturally occurring fluoride in it, but usually not enough to strengthen tooth enamel—will be the first additive introduced to our pristine drinking water.

The scientific debate troubles most Portlanders. A layman myself, I’m at sea when two opposing forces claim that “the science” is on their side. Few of us are expert enough to criticize the studies that warring factions employ to support their own claims and refute the opposition’s. Fortunately, in this case, the sidelines offer a clear view of the action.

The anti-fluoride camp is free to dismiss the American Medical Association, the American Dental Association, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, the U.S. National Research Council and the American Public Health Association (to name just a few from a long list of organizations that endorse water fluoridation), but only as conspiracy theorists.
If, between the lines, you perceive a government conspiracy, you are in good company.

In the ’50s, when water fluoridation was new, paranoiacs smelled a communist plot to subvert American free will. But, before you tear through Pioneer Square screaming, Charlton Heston-style, that fluoride will make zombies of us all, remember that city commissioners drink the same water that flows from your taps at home.

If they are in fact out to get you and this is their plan, then you know they are after you with a rabid yen because they are poisoning themselves and their loved ones in the process.