Fluoride proponents picked up a significant endorsement Thursday, increasing the likelihood that Portland will end its status as the largest city in the country that hasn’t taken steps to fluoridate its water.
With Commissioner Nick Fish joining Randy Leonard in support, fluoridation will now only stall if each of the remaining three Portland City Council members votes no.
And that’s an unlikely scenario.
“We’re optimistic,” said Raquel Luz Bournhonesque, who is heading the advocacy campaign. Although she declined to reveal if a third vote has been lined up, she did say, “Our meetings went well. I think there’s a lot that they have to consider right now. We hope that the result will reflect the community need.”
Portland is the largest city in the country that either lacks fluoridated water or hasn’t taken official steps to approve it. If the City Council does favor fluoride, it should prepare for considerable costs, big-time opposition and then an anti-climactic wait stretching a half-decade or longer.
Injecting fluoride in Portland would require “significant” project costs of about $5 million, according to city estimates obtained by The Oregonian through a public records request.
From there, it would take at least five years to get the fluoridation facility up and running. Maintenance and operations expenses would run about $575,000 annually.
And that doesn’t begin to count the political cost.
Already, City Hall offices have been bombarded with more than 750 calls and emails, with a near split on the topic, a volume reminiscent of the Cesar Chavez street-naming debate.
A yet-to-be-released proposal is expected to head to the City Council in September, although a date hasn’t been set.
“We’ll definitely see what happens when it appears in council,” said Stu Oishi, a policy advisor for Leonard. “That’s where you’ll see a lot of the emotional testimony come into play.”
After nearly a year working behind the scenes, the Everyone Deserves Healthy Teeth Coalition publicly launched its pro-fluoridation campaign last week. Two commercials are in heavy TV rotation, featuring sad-faced children revealing cavity statistics and a dentist urging action in the fight against tooth decay.
Although two-thirds of the country’s population drink fluoridated water, in Oregon the rate is just above one-fifth. That puts the state 48th out of 50 nationally, and untreated tooth decay among third-graders is only slightly better, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But Portland has a decades-long opposition to fluoridation.
Kimberly Kaminski, executive director for Oregon Citizens for Safe Drinking Water, said adding chemicals isn’t the appropriate answer to fight cavities.
“They’ve only heard one side,” she said of the City Council. “I think if they looked at the issue carefully, they read the science and the studies, they listened to what their constituents want, they would not vote in favor.”
Kaminski declined to reveal her opposition strategy or say if her group would pursue a referendum to voters, which would require a difficult signature-gathering process.
According to Water Bureau documents, the tab for a fluoride facility is estimated at $4.95 million. But officials acknowledge that the project could run from between $3.5 million and $7.6 million because so little has been planned. Those estimates are in 2012 dollars, meaning the actual cost would increase during the multi-year process.
Officials went on to write that any fluoridation project must use liquid, or fluorosilicic acid, because dry options “are not feasible for large utilities due to the frequency of chemical handling and fluoride dust exposure.”
Adding fluoride also would likely change pH levels in the water and “would require additional caustic or other corrosion control chemical to bring the pH back up to an appropriate level to control corrosion in the distribution system.”
“The cost of any additional capital improvements needed to mitigate water quality impacts are not included in the estimated capital costs,” according to the memo. Fluoridation would affect about 900,000 people, not only in Portland but also wholesale customers in Gresham, Tigard and Tualatin.
Representatives from the CDC and Upstream Public Health met with the Water Bureau on May 10 to pitch fluoridation. A month later, the Water Bureau provided cost information to Mel Rader, a co-director at Upstream.
In a statement released Thursday, while on vacation, Fish said many hard-working families can’t pay for fluoride. “With fluoridated water, simply drinking tap water gives all of our children the same opportunity to start life with healthy teeth,” Fish said.
That leaves one more vote for approval.
A spokeswoman for Mayor Sam Adams said he is researching the topic and wants to hear from Portlanders before he makes a decision. But Adams and Leonard vote in near lock-step.
Commissioner Dan Saltzman, meanwhile, regularly promotes children’s issues — which is a central theme to the campaign. He’s on vacation and unavailable for comment.
Commissioner Amanda Fritz is also on vacation. But she supports a citywide vote.
In an emailed response provided by her chief of staff, she said: “While I will consider all public input on all sides of the issue, prior to and at any hearing on the matter, it seems that the most prudent course of action may be to support a referral of the issue, rather than Council making the decision.”