Advocates of statewide water fluoridation retreated Tuesday from a showdown vote in the Oregon House, sending their bill to the joint Ways and Means Committee for possible retooling.
House Bill 3099 would require cities with at least 10,000 residents to add fluoride to their water supplies to prevent tooth decay.
Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, the bill’s co-sponsor, said the referral to Ways and Means lets proponents modify the bill to secure more yes votes. He said the bill could be amended to allow a city to “opt out if it decided it doesn’t want to have fluoridation.”
Such a change would make fluoridation the official state health policy but keep it largely symbolic by making implementation voluntary for cities.
Opponents of fluoridation declared the bill dead, while proponents described it as still alive.
When proponents realized Tuesday morning that they didn’t have enough votes to pass the bill, they scrambled for a way to keep it alive politically. Their salvage strategy: Send the bill back to Ways and Means to buy time to tweak the measure and lobby undecided lawmakers.
Fluoridation is one of the most passionately argued issues in Oregon politics. Both sides accuse each other of selective and misleading use of scientific evidence.
Opponents say people who want the benefits of fluoridation should use fluoride rinses on their teeth. They warn that fluoridation can cause fluorosis, a white spotting of the teeth that most dentists call a cosmetic issue rather than a health hazard.
Proponents say artificial fluoridation of the water supply is the best way to protect the teeth of all people, including low-income children who are least likely to use fluoride rinses.
Two-thirds of the U.S. population drinks from fluoridated water supplies. Proponents cite the 60-year history of fluoridation and its track record of safety and effectiveness in strengthening teeth against decay.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls fluoridation one of the 10 most important public health advances of the 20th century. But in Oregon, a coalition of anti-government conservatives, advocates of local control, and environmentalists has blocked statewide fluoridation.
Oregon ranks 48th, trailed by Hawaii and New Jersey, in percentage of residents with fluoridated water. About one in five Oregonians uses water that is either artificially fluoridated or contains natural amounts of fluoride at levels recommended by federal health officials.
At the request of the British Department of Health in 2000, the Evidence-based Practice Center at Oregon Health & Science University reviewed 214 published studies on the safety and effectiveness of fluoride in drinking water. OHSU researchers found clear evidence that fluoride prevents dental decay.
A similar fluoridation bill passed the Oregon House in 2005 by a 36-22 vote but languished in a Senate committee, never reaching the Senate floor.
Sen. Bill Morrisette, D-Springfield, who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, has introduced a fluoridation bill. But he reiterated through a spokesman Tuesday that he lacks the votes to get that bill through his own committee.
If proponents manage to revive the House fluoridation bill and steer it through the House, it would stall on the Senate side unless it went through a different committee, said Don Bishoff, legislative assistant to Morrisette.
Don Colburn: 503-294-5124; firstname.lastname@example.org.