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Portland fluoride battle makes for strange political bedfellows


Our neighbors in generally happy-go-lucky Portland are waging a heated (in their own polite way, anyway) campaign over what’s in their water.

The lines are sharply drawn over a proposal to put fluoride in the city’s water supply, pitting neighbor against neighbor in the heavily liberal town.

Portland is the biggest U.S. city that doesn’t fluoridate its water supply to combat tooth decay. It’s been a big issue since voters first rejected the idea in 1956 and again in 1962. They actually approved it 1978, but it was never added because they rejected it again in 1980.

The issue came to a head last fall after the City Council unanimously voted to add fluoride to the water supply. But opponents mobilized and quickly gathered enough signatures to put the measure to a vote.

“It’s a strange thing. You don’t normally see the folks who are funding virulent right tea party politics making common cause with Kampucha drinking, happy DIY raised-bed gardening folks,” said Denis Theriault, news editor of the Portland Mercury newspaper in an interview on KIRO Radio’s Luke Burbank Show.

Supporters argue Portland faces a dental crisis, with 21 percent of kids between 6 and 9 dealing with dental decay. They say it’s mostly caused by children in poverty, their parents either lacking insurance or knowledge about nutrition and dental habits.

The rate of dental decay is 6 percentage points higher than Seattle children who drink fluoridated water.

But critics argue studies increasingly show the health benefits are minimal and not worth other potential health risks.

“It’s not one IQ study or one bone-cancer study,” anti-fluoridation activist Kellie Barnes told the AP. “But the emerging science, when taken in bulk, is showing there’s a reasonable basis for concern. We’re not saying: ‘Oh, it’s conclusive.'”

The measure to add fluoride is trailing badly in the polls. According to Theriault, opponents have raised just enough doubt in health conscious Portland to undermine most arguments of a potential benefit.

“It’s hard to sift through any of the studies that any opponent can pull out of their back pocket.
People want to make a good decision but in the absence of certainty it’s easier to just vote no,” he said.”

Dentist Mike Plunkett, a fluoride advocate who argues it’s an issue of health-care equality, complains anti-fluoridation forces have “cherry-picked” flimsy scientific data to support their preconceived fears: “I knew there would be some of that, but I’m shocked at how brazen people are.”

The measure has made for tense times at the local tea shop and yoga class.

“It’s surreal. They’re passively aggressively dropping friends on Facebook over this,” Theriault laughed.

The measure has also stoked the anger of libertarians, who don’t want government forcing anything on them. And a lot of people have taken their side, according to Theriault. He predicted even if the measure somehow passed, voters would quickly mobilize to overturn it, and the City Council.

“I would bet my house that there will be a charter ban that Portland could never have a council approve it without the vote of the people again.”

In the meantime, there’s only one certainty. The whole thing is ripe for an upcoming episode of the satirical show Portlandia.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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