SALEM — The Oregon Dental Association has launched a new drive for a state law that would require domestic water suppliers that serve more than 10,000 customers to fluoridate their drinking water.
Senate Bill 33, was introduced the opening day of the session this month. It has yet to be assigned to a committee.
With the emphasis on health care issues and a powerful new ally, backers are optimistic they can succeed this year. A similar bill passed the House in 2005 but died in a Senate committee in the waning days of the session.
Jane Myers, director of government affairs for the ODA, said the legislation is similar to the bill pushed two years ago.
Municipalities and water districts would be required to fluoridate, but only if they can raise funds from private sources to install the necessary equipment. That provision is patterned after a California law.
A more controversial provision was added to the legislation prohibiting local governing bodies from adopting or enforcing ordinances prohibiting the use of fluoride. Currently only 732,000 (20 percent) of Oregon residents drink fluoridated water. The Medford Water Commission, which supplies the city and surrounding communities, does not fluoridate, nor does Ashland where city officials recently approved an ordinance prohibiting adding fluoride to its water.
Medford’s commission directors are on record opposing state mandated fluoridation.
“The commission believes this is a local issue,” said Larry Rains, manager, adding the commission as an entity of the city is prohibited from taking a position on a local ballot measure.
“The board has always maintained it will do what our servers want,” he said.
Proponents of fluoridation filed the initiative petition two years ago seeking a vote on treating the city’s drinking water to promote oral health.
According to the city recorder’s office, only 1,000 signatures have been submitted; they need 3,600 valid signatures to get on the ballot.
Only Medford residents would be eligible to vote, according to a legal opinion by the city attorney’s office. Many dentists, physicians and other health officials consider dental disease a serious health hazard, not only in young children but also older people.
“We believe that you can’t have good general health unless you have good oral health,” said Myers, who will direct the legislative strategy to get the bill passed.
But fluoridation has its passionate detractors, including some doctors and dentists and a handful of environmentalists. The latter group fears damage to fish from fluoride spilling into streams, though fluoride is a naturally occurring element in many water sources.
A Medford cardiologist, Dr. Nick Dienel, has been a leading opponent. And at least one Jackson County legislator, Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, announced his opposition to SB33, saying, “this is a local issue. I am not in favor of unfunded state mandates.”
The dental association attracted a powerful ally when the Oregon Public Health Association, a coalition of health care providers, signed on to the ODA campaign.
“We’ve supported it (fluoridation) in the past, but we’re taking a much more active role this session,” Leslie Uebel, OPHA president-elect said at a news conference this week.
While many organizations have given their endorsement to fluoridation in hopes of reducing incidences of dental problems, ODA has borne the brunt of the lobbying effort to pass a state mandate.
Another plus this year is the emphasis on health care in general, including a proposal by Sens. Alan Bates, D-Ashland, a physician, and Sen. Ben Westlund, D-Bend, for access to universal health care coverage, Myers said.
She said statistics show that for every dollar spent on fluoridation, $38 is saved on dental expenses. But she conceded the opposition is well organized and has considerable influence.
“I think this bill has a very good chance,” she added.