The largest U.S. city without fluoridated water takes a step toward getting it.
Among a certain subset of the population, apprehension about fluoride in public drinking water supplies is always present. But, like seasonal allergies or interest in baseball, the intensity of the debate waxes and wanes.
Just now though, fluoride, which protects against tooth decay, is ascendant.
This week two large U.S. cities considered whether to start fluoridating their water or to stop the practice altogether. A third will put the issue to the voters in November.
Portland, Oregon (pop. 593,000) is the largest city in the nation not to add fluoride to its drinking water. On Wednesday, the city council decided to change that, voting 5-0 to start fluoridation in 2014. It will affect some 900,000 residents in the metropolitan area.
It is possible, however, that voters will have a say before then. Opponents of the measure, who claimed that it amounts to forced medication, said they will gather signatures for a ballot referendum, the Oregonian reports:
A referendum — which would directly challenge the city’s plan rather than seek a general ban on fluoride — needs about 20,000 valid signatures in 30 days to go forward.
But if anti-fluoride activists gather those signatures, the city’s ordinance will be suspended pending a public vote in May 2014, the earliest possible date under election rules.
Portlanders have voted against fluoridation three times, most recently in 1980. This time, opponents said they have 125 volunteers and expect to have 25 paid signature-gatherers.
In Phoenix, that same day, a city council subcommittee decided to let its fluoridation policy stand and continue the practice.
In Wichita, Kansas, which does not fluoridate, voters will have the last word. This year, citizens gathered enough signatures to force the city council to consider the issue. The council could have taken action itself, but pushed the decision onto the public as part of the November 6 ballot.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued new guidelines for fluoride. The department said that fluoride concentrations should be 0.7 milligrams per liter, replacing a range of 0.7 to 1.2 milligrams per liter that the U.S. Public Health Service had recommended.
In lowering the recommended levels, the HHS said that Americans are now exposed to fluoride in more products than just drinking water.
American Dental Association has supported fluoridation since 1950, just after cities began adding it to drinking water. In 1997, the association put forward a more comprehensive, seven-point policy. According to the ADA:
Throughout more than 65 years of research and practical experience, the overwhelming weight of credible scientific evidence has consistently indicated that fluoridation of community water supplies is safe. The possibility of any adverse health effects from continuous low-level consumption of fluoride has been and continues to be extensively studied. Of the hundreds of credible scientific studies on fluoridation, none has shown health problems associated with the consumption of optimally fluoridated water.
The Centers for Disease Control has called fluoridation one of the ten greatest public health achievements in the U.S. in the 20th century.
Note: I’m surprised the fluoride coverage doesn’t have more cheeky allusions to Dr. Strangelove and our “precious bodily fluids.”
Circle of Blue reporter
Brett writes about agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and the politics and economics of water in the United States. He also writes the Federal Water Tap, Circle of Blue’s weekly digest of U.S. government water news. He is the winner of two Society of Environmental Journalists reporting awards, one of the top honors in American environmental journalism: first place for explanatory reporting for a series on septic system pollution in the United States(2016) and third place for beat reporting in a small market (2014). He received the Sierra Club’s Distinguished Service Award in 2018. Brett lives in Seattle, where he hikes the mountains and bakes pies. Contact Brett Walton