Drinking-water fluoridation, which doesn’t happen in Portland, deserves to be about as controversial as water chlorination, which does. Like chlorination, fluoridation prevents illness through the use of a substance you wouldn’t want to chug, and it occurs safely throughout the country. About 74 percent of Americans on community systems get fluoridated water. And even in Oregon, which has a comparatively low rate of fluoridation, more than 830,000 people drink treated water.
Of the 50 biggest cities in the United States, only a handful do not fluoridate their water, and the list could soon be smaller. Fluoride supporters in Wichita recently collected enough signatures to force the issue onto the City Council agenda.
Oddly, it doesn’t seem to matter that fluoridation is both safe and widespread, even in Oregon. The debate makes people nervous. The most recent push to fluoridate Portland’s water supply has been a quiet affair, and it’s not clear that even three of Portland’s commissioners will lend their support. That’s a shame, though there is reason for optimism. Members of the fluoridation coalition have meet with each of the commissioners or their chiefs of staff and “heard a lot of support,” says Mel Rader, co-director of Upstream Public Health, which belongs to the coalition pushing for fluoridation.
Elected officials are often less willing to express publicly what they say privately for fear of creating controversy. And a serious move to fluoridate drinking water here will receive fevered opposition, just as it has over the years in many places. City residents will be told that proponents want to lace their drinking water with toxic industrial waste. They’ll be directed to Internet sites claiming, among other things, that fluoridation could hurt kids’ brains, lower their IQs and compromise various other organs and glands.
To believe such crackpottery is implicitly to believe the following: That state and federal health agencies are, for some mysterious reason, hiding the truth and helping to poison more than 200 million citizens, aided by the American Dental Association and, we guess, credulous editorial boards like The Oregonian’s. While we don’t consider any of these groups infallible, or even close, it’s far more likely that fluoridation receives so much mainstream support because it does exactly what it’s supposed to. It reduces the incidence of cavities.
Opponents are right about one thing. Adding fluoride to water — as opposed to chlorine — isn’t necessary to make the water safe and is, rather, a way of administering passive medical treatment to people who may object. We understand that such an affront to personal choice is potentially infuriating, regardless of how beneficial the water additive might be.
But requiring people to receive medical treatment is nothing new, as any parent of a vaccinated child could tell you. And, depending upon the circumstances, it can be good public policy. That’s certainly the case for fluoridation, which protects vulnerable children from parental indifference and ignorance. It also protects taxpayers, who foot the bill when those same children visit the emergency room in dental agony. People who don’t think such things happen regularly should talk to some doctors and dentists.
In any case, the “F” word is in circulation, and Commissioner Randy Leonard has said he’s willing to back the effort as long as supporters line up two of his colleagues. That places the onus on Sam Adams, Nick Fish, Amanda Fritz and Dan Saltzman. Are they going to save kids’ teeth and taxpayers’ money? Or are they going to hide beneath their chairs, stick their fingers in their ears and hope that the issue goes away?