When I show people around the downtown as a guide for Portland Walking Tours, I joke that we Portlanders love to protest things.
Much as we love our city, I tell visitors, we also like to get worked up about stuff and make a lot of noise. Out-of-towners (and sometimes recent arrivals or even longtime residents) who join my tour get to see statues that provoked controversy, as well as the blocks where the Occupy Portland camp settled for more than five weeks in 2011. I was there, as regular readers of this blog well know.
This week’s vote on fluoridation of Portland’s water has provoked a public furor that has been no laughing matter, however. Over the past few months it’s been surprisingly loud, fierce, and unrelenting. Each side has accused the other of stealing campaign signs, and arguments among my Facebook friends have been spirited, to say the least.
Supporting the move to fluoridate the city’s water are most health and science authorities, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to the American Dental Association. All of the city’s newspapers, from the Oregonian to the bi-weekly Portland Tribune and the alternative weeklies Willamette Week and the Portland Mercury, have urged voters to say yes.
Just the other day, the online magazine Slate published a sneering analysis of Portland’s longtime (and apparently growing) opposition to fluoridation because, after all, 74 percent of Americans drink fluoridated water. Portland is the last major city to resist the treatment.
Recent local polls have suggested that the city council’s decision last year to do what so many other U.S. communities have done for decades may be struck down by the voters. A poll by a local TV station last week found the no vote winning by 9 percent, and this week the potential negative vote has grown to a 13-percent lead.
Since we vote by mail in Oregon—have done so for more than a quarter century—many of my neighbors have already voted. This month I took straw polls of the three different book groups I belong to and learned that nearly all their members (lawyers, doctors, retired librarians and teachers) are voting for fluoridation.
Only a few months ago I would have been solidly with them. I found it unfathomable that any reasonable person could oppose fluoridation. I scoffed and ridiculed the opposition on my BlogTalkRadio show, Pop2Politics, last fall.
The deadline to file my ballot is three days away . . . and with much trepidation, I am thinking of voting no.
I won’t be upset if fluoridation passes; I won’t be jubilant if it fails. In fact, I’m distinctly uncomfortable with much of the company I find myself among on this issue: the rabid libertarians, the fervent environmentalists, the out-of-state money pouring in to defeat fluoride, even old-fashioned conspiracy theorists who seem little different from the folks who opposed fluoridation when I was a child because it was a communist plot. (Remember Gen. Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove?)
Many of the reasons I’ve seen promoted to vote no seem unfounded, even ludicrous:
- Fluoride doesn’t “poison” water because it occurs in it at various levels naturally. We already infuse many other chemicals into our water system, from chlorine and ammonia to sodium hydroxide, in order to disinfect it and balance the pH.
- Most of the studies of fluoride’s supposed ill effects have involved junk science, such as huge levels of naturally-occurring fluoride in China, way beyond what Portland is proposing.
- As an old-fashioned New Deal liberal, the libertarian “right to decide” cuts little ice with me. We didn’t vote on the above-mentioned chemicals in our water, we don’t vote on seatbelts and airbags, and we really shouldn’t have had to wait this long for more stringent gun control regulations that still haven’t passed. These are all good things, and government sometimes has to force people to do things that are in their best interests, even if they don’t want to … because the private sector sure as hell isn’t going to do it.
Perhaps there will be fewer cavities among Portland’s poor and minority populations if we fluoridate the water system. I don’t know that that’s any more certain than the awful things fluoridation opponents have predicted, however: this morning’s Oregonian reports that a recent study indicating dental health has been improving in the city since 2007 caused proponents of fluoridation to connive in putting a positive spin on the news before it went public.
Why am I leaning toward a no vote? Call it a combination of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” … economic parsimony … and a little corporate paranoia.
The city will have to build a new facility to enact fluoridation. I’ve seen the cost reported variously as $5 million or $7 million; I have not seen anyone say where that money’s going to come from. The City is already proposing to raise water rates 4.8 percent this year; how much more will a yes vote entail?
Nobody’s saying. Why not put some portion of that $5 million into direct education and fluoride pills to the poor? Their lousy nutrition may be the real problem here, and may well outweigh the positive effects of a costly chemical transformation of the water system. The recent improvements in dental health mentioned above suggest we may not have to resort to a costly overhaul of the water system.
Second, why now? Who pushed this initiative through the city council, and why? The source of the impetus has remained mysterious. I don’t see anyone following the money trail here.
It has been reported that the source of our fluoride will be hexafluorosilicic acid, a toxic byproduct of fertilizer production. And though that won’t be “going into” our water—the HFS acid will be treated to extract the useful fluoride—the upshot here is that we’re paying to dispose of a particular industry’s waste product instead of insisting it clean up its own mess. This is very true to form among private corporations, who often make the public sector (and our tax dollars) take care of their problems while trying to make it look like they’re doing us a favor.
I’ve seen some interesting speculation on how fluoridating the water system will result in higher levels of fluoride in our waste systems and eventually wild streams and rivers—putting more pressure on wildlife. Howard Patterson, a former juggler and entertainer with the Flying Karamazov Brothers who eventually finished his advanced biology education to focus on environmental management and river restoration, posted a thought-provoking video on this angle, with regard to Pacific Northwest salmon.
His argument is intriguing, but not convincing. And that’s the problem on both sides here. I don’t think we really know enough to say, either way. Personally, I suspect far greater threats to our health and environment than fluoride are at work in our daily lives—from the poisons pouring out of our automobile exhausts to the heavy electromagnetic exposure to which so many of us voluntarily subject our brains, hands, hips, and rear ends from our smartphones and other digital toys. To say nothing of the cigarette butts that smokers are dropping in the streets, parks, and gutters, and the smoke they so generously share with us (are you aware that it contains hundreds of toxic chemicals?) on our sidewalks in other public places. It’s illegal to smoke indoors, and yet I regularly observe (or smell) exhaled tobacco smoke on city buses and trains, public foyers, and even my elevator to home. Where’s my choice in that?
I suspect people are getting worked up about fluoridation, allowing themselves to get on a high horse about it, because it’s something over which they can have an effect. So much else seems beyond our ability to control. So much else is probably poisoning us, inducing higher cancer rates, and otherwise shortening our lives, that we don’t even know about.
So as I say, I am seriously considering voting no on fluoridation. But I’m not going to feel eager, proud, or even satisfied about it.