SALEM — Pressure is building on the Oregon Legislature to require cities to add fluoride to their drinking water.
Such a bill passed the House in March but appears bottled up in a Senate committee. So proponents have inserted identical language in another House bill, giving them a second shot at passage through a different, more receptive committee.
Both bills would require cities with more than 10,000 people to add fluoride to their drinking water, if money is available to do so. The legislation could affect an estimated 2.3 million Oregonians, including 489,000 in Portland.
Last fall the Oregon Health Policy Commission recommended that the state require fluoride to be added to all public water systems to combat tooth decay.
It was not a new idea. At least three fluoridation bills have come before the Legislature since 1999. All have failed because of a coalition of citizen advocates and environmental groups who argue that fluoridation poses a threat to both humans and fish.
Environmental groups say more studies need to be done on sodium fluoride, the most common such water additive and a byproduct of producing phosphate for fertilizers.
“What we put in our water is a water quality issue. It’s not an area where dentists are experts,” said Brent Foster, state conservation chairman for the Sierra Club.
Other fluoride opponents argue that fluoride accumulated in the human body can weaken bones and cause permanent mottling or discoloration of the teeth.
Dr. Bill Osmunson, a Lake Oswego dentist, says he used to recommend fluoride, but recent studies have convinced him that the benefits may not outweigh the risks. Now he travels to Salem at least once a week to try to persuade state lawmakers to vote against a fluoride mandate.
He crosses paths with Oregon Dental Association representatives, who are lobbying just as hard to get a fluoride bill signed into law.
This year’s first fluoride bill, House Bill 2025, was sent to the Senate Environment and Land Use Committee after it passed the House. For proponents, that was an unfortunate choice, as the committee’s chairman, Sen. Charlie Ringo, D-Beaverton, said he’s not sure about the bill and whether it has enough votes to get out of his committee.
Rep. Bob Jenson, R-Pendleton, chairman of the House Water Committee, decided to take out an insurance policy. Jenson drafted a back-up proposal, House Bill 2472, which he hopes will land in the Senate Rules Committee, where the chairwoman — Majority Leader Kate Brown, D-Portland — favors fluoridation.
“I think it’s important enough legislation to make another run at it,” Jenson said Wednesday.
Opponents aren’t happy.
“I’ve not seen this second-bill tactic used before,” said Lynne Campbell, with Oregon Citizens for Safe Drinking Water, an advocacy group.
In addition to the legislative maneuvering, former Gov. John Kitzhaber has begun lobbying for fluoride. Kitzhaber is not only a physician but also a well-known advocate for salmon. His phone calls to Senate Democrats have blunted arguments by environmental groups who say fluoride is harmful to fish.
“You don’t find many more avid environmentalists than John Kitzhaber,” Brown said.
Although other states have added fluoride to public water systems for more than 50 years, the idea never washed in Oregon. Only 24 percent of the state’s population has access to fluoridated water, compared with 67 percent nationwide.
A 2002 survey by the Oregon Department of Human Services found tooth decay is a significant problem for Oregon’s children, especially poor children, and recommended fluoridation.
Both sides in the debate say the Senate vote is too close to call. Should either bill make it through the Legislature, Gov. Ted Kulongoski probably would sign it into law.
“He supports this 100 percent,” Anna Richter Taylor, the governor’s spokeswoman said Wednesday. “It’s the right thing to do.”