Portland’s reign as America’s largest bastion of fluoride-free water is facing a revolt.
A newly formed and hush-hush coalition of more than 50 high-profile organizations is quietly lobbying the Portland City Council to add fluoride to a drinking water supply serving about 900,000 residents — not just in Portland but also Gresham, Tigard and Tualatin, which buy city water through wholesale contracts.
The coalition could make a public pitch in coming weeks but faces a short window for political support. It has the backing of city Commissioner Randy Leonard, who oversees the Portland Water Bureau but leaves office in less than five months.
Portland is the largest city in the country without fluoridated water. Cities such as San Jose and San Diego in recent years have approved or made the switch in hopes of reducing tooth decay, particularly among children.
In Portland, though, residents have voted against fluoridation three times, most recently in 1980.
“This falls under the category of something I think is a good idea,” Leonard said Thursday, cautioning that he’s unsure about political support. “It’s something I think is not near-cooked enough yet to consider bringing forward. When it is, I think it’ll be more appropriate for me to talk more about it.”
Nonprofit Upstream Public Health is behind the push, which began in earnest nearly a year ago when it teamed with go-to political consultant Mark Wiener to make inroads with the City Council. Co-director Raquel Luz Bournhonesque was unavailable for an interview Thursday but in an email said there is a “growing dental health crisis in Oregon” and “there is no question that it is long past time for us to do something about it.”
Supporters of the newly formed Everyone Deserves Healthy Teeth Coalition include the Oregon Dental Association, the Oregon Pediatric Society, the Northwest Health Foundation, Kaiser Permanente and Regence BlueCross BlueShield of Oregon.
“The hope is to fluoridate our water in Portland,” said Nichole Maher, executive director for the Northwest Health Foundation. “I think that our poorest and most vulnerable children are paying pretty significant consequences.”
Nationwide, two-thirds of the population receives fluoridated water. In Oregon, the rate is 22.6 percent — 48th out of 50 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the metro area, only the Tualatin Valley Water District, Beaverton and Forest Grove fluoridate.
More than 35 percent of Oregon third-graders have untreated tooth decay, according to five-year-old CDC numbers. Compared to other states, which have different reporting periods, Oregon ranked fifth-worst.
Fluoridation has a long history, beginning in the United States in the 1940s to combat tooth decay. The CDC named it one of the 10 great public health interventions of the 20th century.
For nearly 50 years, the recommended level in drinking water was 0.7 to 1.2 milligrams per liter. Last year, federal health authorities eliminated the range and set the recommendation at 0.7 milligrams per liter, noting that fluoride access has increased while also hoping to minimize overexposure that can cause white spotting on teeth.
Roger Burt points to that decision as an example of why Portland shouldn’t fluoridate its water. He opposes fluoridation for health reasons, fearing it hurts child brain development, among other things.
Burt, 69, has been fighting local fluoridation for decades, helping persuade voters 32 years ago to overturn a 1978 decision that would have put fluoride in Portland water.
“I’m in favor of this issue coming out. I think a good airing and a good vigorous campaign would only benefit us. I truly believe the facts are on our side,” he said. “I don’t like the surreptitious way they set it up to try and surprise us. It’s like an ambush. But that’s acceptable political strategy.”
Water Bureau Administrator David Shaff said city staff have given Leonard’s office technical information for fluoridation options.
Shaff said the city could inject fluoride at its Lusted Hill facilities, where ammonia and sodium hydroxide are added. That’s about 10 miles downstream from the headworks at the Bull Run water supply, so any fluoride injection would go to all customers.
“There’s no way not to provide it to everybody that gets water from us,” Shaff said.
Wholesale customers reached Thursday hadn’t heard of the effort.
“What I would support is A) being notified about it, B) learning about it and, C) having a public reaction from our citizens,” Tualatin Mayor Lou Ogden said.
Leonard said he decided to support fluoridation efforts after meeting with supporters.
He told them he’ll promote an ordinance to fluoridate the water with City Council approval, without a public vote, if they find two other council votes and run a public awareness campaign.
“We’re still in talks. I’ve talked to some on the council. I would not say we’re at that place yet,” Leonard said Thursday, while on vacation. “There’s a difference between people saying they like the idea — this is something I’ve learned in politics — and they will vote for the idea.”