PORTLAND, Ore.—In the 1950s, after health authorities began fluoridating U.S. water supplies, they faced opposition from groups like the John Birch Society, which called it “an unconstitutional mass medication of the public.”
Sixty years later, the fight over fluoridation has erupted in Portland, where the battle has drawn in the city’s craft-beer brewers, organic-food purveyors and environmentalists. Even some of the city’s famed indie-rock musicians are taking sides.
The debate has prompted something of an existential crisis in this self-consciously liberal city, which votes Tuesday on whether to overturn the city council’s 2012 decision to fluoridate. Citizens who pride themselves on tolerance are divided on the appropriately progressive response to fluoridated water: Is it an intrusion into personal liberty, or a compassionate public health measure?
At rallies, “no” advocates cheerfully campaign alongside “yes” people. At rush hour on the Burnside Bridge last week, activists squared off side-by-side, waving placards at drivers. As horns blared and demonstrators chanted, two face-painted mimes frolicked and distributed balloon sculptures.
Nearby, a dreadlocked Mike Alexander, president of Oregon’s Urban League chapter, held a red “Yes” sign supporting fluoridation. He clasped arms with a smiling Frances Quaempts-Miller, an NAACP member with a blue “No” sign.
Mr. Alexander flashed a toothy smile and said: “I grew up in New York City. I’ve been fluoridated since I was three years old.” Ms. Quaempts-Miller said she would rather see “poor kids have direct access to the dental care they need.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls water fluoridation “a safe and healthy way to effectively prevent tooth decay” and “one of 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century.” But the process has long stoked debate. Anti-fluoride campaigners argue that it poses serious health dangers, including increased risk of bone fractures and of decreased thyroid function.
Aaron Park, a 29-year-old Portlander who describes himself as a “full-time student, part-time educator and part-time baker” (he works Saturdays at an artisanal bread shop) recently met a pair of anti-fluoridation activists on his porch, and initially expressed support for fluoridation. “The World Health Organization calls it the greatest lifesaving measure of all time,” he said cheerfully as a plump basset hound played at his feet and Tibetan hangings fluttered from eaves above.
But his expression darkened as the activists made their case. “Wow, I’m sure there is some selection bias going on,” Mr. Park said. “I love having my mind changed!”
The controversy has drawn in the city’s indie rockers. “My drummer and my mom both pointed out issues with fluoride to me, so I was already thinking about it,” said Zia McCabe, keyboardist and vocalist for the Dandy Warhols, a Portland rock band.
Ms. McCabe has been playing since last fall at rallies to defeat fluoride. “I came home from tour and protested and got riled up,” she said.
The Dandy Warhols joined what their singer called the Public Water/Public Vote music festival soon after the city council’s 2012 decision to fluoridate, drawing bands with names like Guantanamo Baywatch and the Sexy Water Spiders, and creating enough buzz to gather the 20,000 signatures required to put fluoride on the ballot.
Ms. McCabe joins a boisterous coalition against fluoride that also includes Portland’s NAACP branch, its Sierra Club chapter and a group of acupuncturists—along with at least one out-of-state conservative political-action committee.
Pro-fluoriders have their own rock-band supporters. Among them, apparently, is Colin Meloy, member of Portland’s revered alternative band, The Decemberists. “How can you hate on the GOP for being creationist science deniers and then go on about how vaccines and fluoridation are poison,” reads a January post on his Twitter account, which is linked from the website colinmeloy.com. In April, the account tweeted disdain for the anti-fluoride documentary, “An Inconvenient Tooth.”
Decemberists Manager Jason Colton declined to comment on the tweets and said no member of the band wishes to discuss fluoridation. Mr. Meloy couldn’t be reached for comment.
The fight-fluoride campaign attracted a big organic-food vendor. “There was some internal debate, and this was not a decision we took lightly,” said Bliss Newton, the Collectives Manager, Marketing and Member Services director for the Portland Food Coop. “In the end,” she said, the coop “primarily felt fluoridating Portland’s water supply does not allow individuals a personal choice as to what they put in their bodies.”
Some of Portland’s famed craft brewers weighed in with a risqué photo exhibit—”Brewdoir Photography”—of semi-clothed craft brewers in a fundraiser this month. Brewer Larry Crouse and a business partner posed in boxer briefs with the words “No Fluoride in My Beer” across their bare backs. “It was all very tasteful,” Mr. Crouse said.
Until last year, Portland was the largest city in the U.S. not to approve fluoridation. Many U.S. cities began adding fluoride to water in the 1950s after evidence showed it strengthened teeth, but Portland always held out.
Fluoridation has sparked a lasting debate. The John Birch Society, which calls itself a “limited government” group, came out against it in 1959, and its opposition continues to this day, a spokesman said. In Phoenix last year, a public stir prompted re-examination of fluoridation, which the city decided to continue. In November, Wichita, Kan., residents voted against fluoridation, as they did in 1978 and 1964. Pinellas County, Fla., stopped fluoridation, then restarted this year after a bitter political campaign.
Portland city leaders say they were spurred toward fluoride when a citizens’ group noted rising tooth decay among low-income and minority children. With support of the Oregon Health Authority, the city council voted to begin fluoridation in 2014.
“I concluded fluoridation is a safe, cost-effective and common sense approach to promoting public health,” said Nick Fish, Portland’s City Council Commissioner. “I did not reach this decision lightly. I have heard from Portlanders who strongly oppose adding fluoride to Portland’s water.”
Many “No” activists say they oppose fluoridation because it represents lack of choice. “The government does not have the right to make a major medical decision for the public at large. That decision flies in the face of everything it means to be a Portlander,” said Tacee Webb, who runs what she calls “an all-Gluten-Free Preschool.”
“And, let’s face it,” she adds: “We challenge authority.”
A Survey/USA Poll released last week showed support for fluoride slipping, especially among women voters. Some fluoride-favoring voters feel outdone. “I think they’re ahead of us with stilt walkers and flame jugglers,” said Shauna Ballo, a volunteer with Healthy Kids/Healthy Portland, which is campaigning for fluoride.
The pro-fluoridation campaigners have raised about $850,000 as of Friday, according to filings with Oregon’s secretary of state, compared with about one-third that amount for “no” forces.
Anti-fluoridation filings include about $49,000 from James Garvey of Wichita, Kan., whose Kansas Taxpayers Network Inc. merged in 2008 with Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political-action committee. He said he got into Portland’s fluoridation fight because “the whole world is watching Portland.”
He doesn’t mind sharing an agenda with left-leaning Portlanders. “I don’t have any problem with tree-huggers,” he said. “It’s not political, it’s what you drink…I believe in individual liberty for all people.”