The Oregon House of Representatives stepped out of character last week by approving a bill requiring that cities with populations of more than 10,000 add fluoride to their water. The Republicans who control the House would ordinarily be presumed to oppose state mandates of this sort, and also to resist improving collective well-being at the expense of individual rights. The Senate, which is led by Democrats, will have to remind the House majority of its principles and kill the bill.
Adding fluoride to water is a highly effective public health measure. The chemical helps teeth resist decay; children, especially, can avoid a lifetime of dental problems by drinking fluoridated water. Municipal water supplies in communities across the country and around the world have been fluoridated for decades, with proven benefits for dental health and few unwanted side-effects.
Yet not everyone sees fluoridation in the same light. Many object to adding any chemical to the water supply. Others contend that fluoridating water is an inefficient way to improve dental health, since people drink only a tiny fraction of municipal water supplies – most is sprinkled on lawns, used by industry or flushed down the drain. Still others worry about the effects of fluoride on fish and other aquatic life. And then there are those who are persuaded that fluoride is toxic.
The debate over fluoridation resembles other public health controversies. Many public health programs – ranging from the chlorination of drinking water to the requirement that children in public schools be vaccinated against diseases – draw objections from people who reject the prevailing scientific consensus.
Yet there are differences. Unlike chlorination or vaccination, adding fluoride to drinking water does not address a threat to public safety. People can obtain the benefits of fluoride on their own, by giving their children fluoride treatments, drops or pills, while it’s difficult to opt out of a water fluoridation program.
Eugene, more than most communities, has wrestled with these arguments. For a period of 20 years starting in 1956, fluoride was approved and rejected in a series of public votes. The last came in 1977, when the city’s voters repealed a fluoridation program. The Register-Guard began that period as an enthusiastic promoter of fluoridation, but toward the end sided with those who opposed what they regarded as a program of unwanted mandatory medication.
Oregon has also seen fluoridation battles, including proposals like the one that passed the House last week. The earlier proposals were turned aside as an intrusion on local communities’ right to make their own decisions. The argument for local control cuts both ways – in 1976, voters rejected a statewide initiative that would have prohibited fluoridation of water supplies.
If fluoridation is an issue best left to local communities to decide, and if local decisions result in only 23 percent of Oregonians having fluoridated water, attention should turn to finding other ways to ensure that children, in particular, can gain the benefits of fluoride. In 1965, Eugene voters defeated a proposal to provide fluoride pills or drops to anyone requesting them. That concept could be revived statewide or locally as an unintrusive substitute for state-mandated fluoridation of drinking water.