Fluoride Action Network

Bill revives fluoridated water debate

Source: The Oregonian | January 19th, 2005 | By MICHELLE COLE
Location: United States, Oregon

SALEM — Across the country, adding fluoride to tap water is as routine as brushing your teeth. But in Oregon? It’s about as popular as paying a sales tax or pumping our own gas.

At least three bills have come before the Oregon Legislature since 1995 proposing to require municipal water systems to add fluoride to combat tooth decay, especially in children. They’ve all failed. The last fluoride bill, in 2001, never got to the floor for a vote.

But the idea hasn’t disappeared down the drain. Today, the House Water Committee will take testimony on a new proposal, House Bill 2025, that would require municipal systems serving more than 10,000 people to add fluoride to the drinking water.

That would affect an estimated 2.3 million Oregonians, including 489,000 in Portland, where the tap water is so pure some people have talked about bottling and marketing it.

Fluoride has been added to drinking water in other states for more than 50 years. But the practice has never caught on in Oregon, where only 20 percent of the population has access to fluoridated water, compared with a national average of 67 percent.

Oregon has resisted fluoride mandates because “we have a reputation for being more independent-minded,” said Lynne Campbell, executive director of Oregon Citizens for Safe Drinking Water, a group that has battled fluoridation proposals in the state Capitol and in city halls.

But fluoride proponents argue there’s a relation between Oregon’s lack of fluoridated drinking water and a higher-than-average percentage of children with cavities and tooth decay.

A 2002 survey by the Oregon Department of Human Services of 3,900 elementary school-aged children found 56 percent of the 6- to 8-year-olds had tooth decay, compared with 52 percent of the U.S. average for the same age group.

Low-income children and children of color had significantly higher rates of tooth decay, the survey found.

April Love, a dentist who volunteers to treat preschoolers in Portland-area Head Start classes, carries photos of a 3-year-old with brown front teeth and a 4-year-old whose baby teeth have rotted away.

“What overwhelms me is the ridiculousness that this is happening with these kids and that it’s something preventable,” said Love, who helped persuade Beaverton voters to endorse fluoridation in 2002.

This fall, the Oregon Health Policy Commission recommended that the state require all public water systems to add fluoride. The Oregon Dental Association, representing 75 percent of the state’s dentists, is lobbying hard to get a fluoride mandate passed in the Legislature this year.

There are no reliable estimates of how much fluoridation would cost. The Oregon Dental Association says startup equipment costs could range from $1.50 to $14.52 a customer, depending on the water system. Annual operational cost estimates range from 50 cents to $1.50 a customer.

Even at $14.52, it’s still a good deal, said William Zepp, the Oregon Dental Association’s executive director. Nationally, the group says, every $1 spent on fluoridation saves $38 on dental treatment.

Wide range of opposition

But the dentists face considerable opposition from environmentalists who say fluoride isn’t good for migrating salmon; from cities who resent state mandates; and from consumer advocates who argue that using drinking water to medicate the public en masse is not the best way to improve Oregon’s dental health.

“There’s a strong belief in Oregon that clean drinking water is important — whether it’s for drinking or for salmon — and any plan to add a substance that is potentially harmful to either is going to meet the same resistance,” said Brent Foster, an attorney representing the Columbia and Willamette Riverkeeper groups.

Bill Bakke, director of the Native Fish Society of Oregon, said researchers studying Columbia River salmon about 10 years ago found migrating fish avoided areas near the John Day Dam where an aluminum smelter was releasing fluoride into the water.

For humans, the most common adverse effects of fluoride are lacy markings, pitting or discoloration of the tooth enamel. These defects are seen in children who ingest too much fluoride, usually brought about by a combination of drinking water, added supplements or eating toothpaste.

But some scientists and consumer advocates say there’s still much to be learned about fluoride. They say studies suggest possible links to bone fractures, depression, hyperactivity, early sexual maturity and even cancer.

It’s simply not appropriate for the government to require fluoride added to the public’s drinking water, Campbell said.

“In this country,” she said, “we have had a tradition of individual choice about the medication we take.”

Michelle Cole: 503-294-5143; michellecole@news.oregonian.com