Will the next controversial public health issue in Oregon please stand up? Oh wait, it just did. On Sept. 12, the Portland City Council unanimously approved an ordinance to authorize the Portland Water Bureau to fluoridate the city’s water supply in order to “reduce tooth decay and promote good oral health.” The move effectively resurfaces the fluoridation issue in Oregon, where, according to the Oregon Dental Association, only about 20 percent of residents drink fluoridated water.
The ordinance passed amidst fierce protest from what The Oregonian editorial board called a “loud minority” that made “angry references … to fascism and forced medication.” But Oregon Citizens for Clean Drinking Water executive committee member Rick North says it’s as much about due public process as it is the lack of scientific consensus about the safety of water fluoridation, calling Portland “the Gettysburg of the fluoridation of water.” North says the council pushed the ordinance through so quickly that “it did not give time for any meaningful public debate.” That group is now working with more than 100 volunteers to collect 20,000 petition signatures that, if collected by Oct. 12, will nullify the ordinance and force it to a public vote.
Will Eugene follow suit? It doesn’t look likely. “As we’re seeing in Portland, this can be a polarized issue. We don’t advocate one way or the other; we just want to do what the citizens want,” says Lance Robertson, public affairs manager at EWEB. Citing previous attempts at fluoridation ordinances that were voted down, he continues, “as a citizen-owned utility, we believe the citizens have spoken through the ballot box … it’s really not on our radar at this point.”
Though perhaps not on EWEB’s radar, Lane County Health and Human Services, which advises the city of Eugene on public health issues, is watching closely. “We are paying attention to all aspects of the situation,” says public information officer Jason Davis. He notes the advantageous position of having access to metrics such as cost-benefit analyses and being able to “learn and glean information” from Portland’s experience. “From a public health perspective,” Davis says, “we’ll just be advising. Ultimately, that will be a city decision.”
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) calls water fluoridation “one of the top 10 public health achievements of the 20th century,” attributing it as a primary cause for the decline of tooth decay in the U.S. since the 1950s. The Action Fluoride Network notes, however, that tooth decay decline in Europe has mirrored that of the U.S., despite that as of 2011, some 97 percent of Europeans were drinking non-fluoridated water.
Contention on the issue abounds, with most opponents calling for further scientific inquiry into the potentially harmful effects of accumulated fluoride exposure, untreatable dental and skeletal fluorosis, decreased thyroid activity, and increased sensitivity in infants and young children.
On the bright side, a study published in the Journal of Human Resources found that exposure to fluoridated water increases women’s earnings by approximately 4 percent.