Now here’s a story that may be easy — or hard — to swallow.
Unintentionally or not, Senate Bill 684 revived a long-running debate about the addition of fluoride to public water supplies.
The bill, which the Senate Health Policy Committee heard this week, says nothing about fluoride. But it would require additives to be reviewed and approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It also would require that additives contain no contaminants that exceed state and federal standards for drinking water.
Its chief sponsors are Sen. Frank Shields of Portland, a Democrat, and Rep. Rob Patridge of Medford, a Republican. It has Democratic and Republican sponsors across the ideological spectrum.
Some of its advocates said that the issue is not fluoride but a state policy that is clear about additives.
“It would be most efficient if there was a standard for all water providers,” said Gordon Martin, a member of the Tualatin Valley Water District board, who also spoke for Oregon Citizens for Safe Drinking Water. “If the state stays silent, then each water district will have to invent its own standards.”
But the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group, in a statement submitted at the hearing, acknowledged that “the primary additive being addressed by this bill is fluoride.”
The research group’s Rhett Lawrence said that fluoridation has occurred without what it considers proper testing and regulation. “SB 684 ensures that this will not happen in Oregon by setting up criteria for chemicals which would be used for fluoridation,” he said.
Overexposure to fluoride can cause discoloration of the teeth, known as “dental fluorosis.”
But opponents of the bill said that the concentration of fluoride in drinking water to prevent tooth decay is 1 part per million, far less than amounts applied by dentists to teeth.
“I have found that fluoridation is best recognized as a medicament for the innocents of the world,” said Dr. Bill Ten Pas of Corvallis, a dentist who is senior vice president of ODS Health Plans.
“These are people who cannot afford to get a prescription for fluoride, or who do not have the opportunity of access to dental care.”
Ten Pas, a former president of the state and national dental associations, said that the bill is a backdoor ban on fluoride.
Sen. John Minnis, R-Wood Village, questioned whether government authority should be exercised in favor of adding something beneficial, rather than merely keeping out contaminants. Sen. Vicki Walker, D-Eugene, said the use of fluoride should be a matter of personal choice.
Salem voters approved fluoridation in 1964. About 40 of Oregon’s 1,000 public water systems, covering about 630,000 people, add fluoride.
Sen. Bill Fisher, R-Roseburg, said that municipal water customers around the state are free to make their own choices. He said the bill was a waste of the committee’s time.
“It’s a local issue,” said Fisher, who two years ago headed a Senate committee that heard a bill to require fluoridation in water systems serving 10,000 or more. “There isn’t any group that does not have the right to go to the ballot box. If they don’t want it that badly, they could throw it right out.”
Fisher said he had no quarrel with fluoridation.
Sen. Charles Starr, R-Hillsboro, said that he grew up in an area with naturally fluoridated water and seldom visited a dentist before his mid-50s.
“A few alarmists have brought this issue forward, and I think that’s too bad,” said Starr, one of the Legislature’s most conservative members. He then shut his book of legislation and walked out of the hearing room.
Chairman Bill Morrisette, D-Springfield, permitted just two witnesses, Martin and Ten Pas. He said that the best advocates can hope is for an interim committee to study it.
“It tells me that a lot of fleshing out needs to be done on this issue,” Martin said.
Replied Sen. Shields, its chief sponsor: “No pun intended.”