SALEM – The Oregon House passed a bill on Monday requiring cities with more than 10,000 people to add fluoride to their drinking water – unless they don’t have the money to do so.
About 20 percent of Oregonians drink fluoridated water. The bill passed by the House would apply to Eugene, Springfield, Portland, Medford, Bend and other cities that don’t fluoridate their water and have resisted efforts in the past to require it.
Lane County’s two largest water purveyors, the Eugene Water & Electric Board and the Springfield Utility Board, do not fluoridate their water.
EWEB opposes the legislation, spokesman Marty Douglass said.
“We feel strongly that fluoride is an issue that needs to be decided on a local level,” he said. “The citizens of Eugene have historically told us they don’t want fluoride in the water supply.”
Eugene voters last weighed in on the subject in the mid-1970s, voting against fluoridating the water supply.
To purchase and install fluoridation equipment would cost around $1 million, which would require the board to raise customer rates, Douglass said. If the bill became law, board members would consider putting the fluoridation to a vote of the people, he said.
At the Springfield Utility Board, engineers have not come up with any cost estimates to fluoridate the water, spokeswoman Mary Ann Rhodes said. But the issue would be complicated by the fact that SUB gets its water from seven different sources.
Rhodes said she didn’t know if SUB would choose to opt out of fluoridation, but she said feelings run strongly on both sides of the issue.
“I think people are very divided about fluoride,” she said.
As originally drafted, the bill included $2.8 million to help water systems defer installation costs. But the bill was amended to remove those funds, and to include a gaping loophole: If cities don’t have the money to pay for adding fluoride to their water, they won’t have to raise rates or taxes to do so – which would essentially make those cities exempt from the law.
The bill passed by a 36-22 vote and now goes to the Senate, where its fate is uncertain.
Rep. Bob Ackerman, D-Eugene, voted against the legislation, saying he had questions about potential harm posed by fluoride, and about the state passing an “unfunded mandate” on to local water systems.
Even with the opt-out provision, Ackerman said he’s fearful that the state could still compel local officials to fluoridate.
Lawmakers for decades have argued about requiring statewide fluoridation, although every surgeon general since the 1950s has endorsed it.
Oregon ranks 46th nationwide in the percentage of its population that drink from water systems with fluoride, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Just 23 percent of Oregonians are on fluoridated water, compared with such high-ranking states as Minnesota (98 percent), Kentucky (96 percent) and North Dakota (95 percent).
In Lane County, only Florence residents drink fluoridated water.
Dentists say adding fluoride to drinking water is a cost-effective way to cut down on tooth decay.
Rep. Billy Dalto, R-Salem, who led the debate, said costs to fluoridate water can range from less than a dollar to more than $5 per person per year, far less than the cost of treating preventable cavities.
“The more than 400,000 children with tooth decay in Oregon cannot afford the status quo,” Dalto said, standing near a large picture of a 5-year-old Oregonian with a mouthful of rotten teeth.
Critics argue that there are health risks from exposure to the chemical, which is considered a toxic substance in high enough quantities.
But Rep. Bob Jenson, R-Pendleton, said it would be impossible for someone to drink enough fluoridated water to be harmed.
Jenson said the vote was a “defining moment in this Legislature,” because similar measures had been discussed so many times in Oregon but had failed.
“We need to stand up for what is right, what is good, and what’s good for our children,” Jenson said.
Register-Guard reporter Tim Christie contributed to this report.