Portland’s Fluoridation Opponents Could Learn a Lot from Fairbanks
OPINION – November 20, 2012 -- Like it or not, fluoridation is all mixed up in politics. I don’t like it at all, but I don’t always get what I want, as evidenced by Stanford beating the Ducks last Saturday.
I also don’t like taking drugs unless I absolutely have to. Fluoride is a drug. It’s not an essential nutrient, like vitamin D or calcium, which are required for health. And it’s not a water treatment, like chlorine, used to kill bacteria that could make us sick. It’s both surprising and disturbing that the FDA classifies fluoride as an unapproved drug since its intended use to prevent cavities has never been tested in a randomized clinical trial (RCT) to determine safety and effectiveness. Even though the FDA recognizes fluoride as a drug, it doesn’t take any responsibility for its safety (I realize this makes no sense, but this issue alone could take up an entire column).
With a drug prescribed by my doctor, there is a specified dose and duration, it’s individualized for my medical history, and I’m told the potential negative side effects. Moreover, I must give my informed consent to taking it. With fluoridation, all these protocols go (literally) down the drain. The lack of informed consent to ingesting drugs is one reason, out of many, that the governments in 43 out of 48 European nations do not have fluoridation. Most nations never fluoridated in the first place, and six that used to stopped as more scientific data has come in.
In the U.S., the political landscape in the U.S. can be a bit confusing, so here’s a little primer for Portland and around the country.
Q. Did Clean Water Portland, which led the opposition to fluoridation, gather enough signatures to officially trigger a referendum?
A. Yes, it’s official. Opponents needed 19,858 valid signatures and qualified with more than a 50% cushion, submitting 33,015. They actually gathered approximately 44,000 total signatures in less than 30 days.
Q. When will the referendum, which is a city-wide vote on the city council’s ordinance to fluoridate, take place?
A. It’s scheduled for May 2014. However, the City Council could decide to hold a special election next year, in March, May, September or November. Only Portland residents can vote, even though Portland sells its water to outlying communities. It can’t be segregated between fluoridated and non-fluoridated.
Q. Can the city do anything to institute fluoridation in the meantime, such as planning, purchasing of equipment, etc.?
A. No, it’s stopped dead in its tracks until the public vote.
Q. I’ve heard about an initiative. Is that the same as the referendum?
A. No. The initiative, also submitted by Clean Water Portland, would add a provision to the City Charter prohibiting the adding of industrial by-products to the water, which would include fluoride. It wouldn’t include substances that make the water potable.
The initiative would be held in the May 2014 election. To get it on the ballot, Clean Water Portland would need to submit about 30,000 valid signatures. Signatures for the referendum campaign would not count toward this total.
Q. Who is the main group supporting fluoridation in the referendum?
A. Upstream Public Health and the coalition it formed to persuade the city council to support the practice.
Q. What’s going on outside Portland?
A. A lot. Sometimes fluoridation decisions are made by city councils, and at other times, they go to a public vote. Occasionally, like in Portland, the city council makes a decision that’s successfully challenged and it goes to a vote.
Q. Has there been a trend either for or against fluoridation?
A. It’s been mixed. Close to home, the Philomath City Council voted unanimously to stop fluoridating the city’s water in 2011, citing health concerns, liability and taking away choice. But fluoridation supporters gathered enough signatures to put it on the ballot and in March of this year, it passed 59%-41%. A few weeks ago, in Crescent City, CA, just south of Ashland, citizens voted 57%-43% to stop fluoridation.
In larger cities, San Jose, CA’s water board voted unanimously to fluoridate in Nov. 2011. And two months ago, Phoenix, AZ’s city council voted to continue fluoridating. On the other side, the county commission of Pinellas County, FL (Clearwater) voted 4-3 last year to stop fluoridation. Two weeks ago, Wichita, KS residents voted 59%-41% to not fluoridate its water. Wichita is the second-largest city in the U.S., behind Portland, to prohibit fluoridation.
For details, the Fluoride Action Network has a list of cities that have stopped fluoridating since 1990, and accompanying stories, at http://www.fluoridealert.org/content/communities/.
Q. What happened in Fairbanks, Alaska?
A. This is quite a story. The city council appointed a task force consisting of three chemists, a microbiologist, a physician and a dentist to study the issue in depth. For a year, they reviewed the science, presenting their findings (twice a month!) at public meetings and also taking public testimony. In April 2011, they produced a 50-page report, complete with their rationale and scientific citations, recommending (5-1) to stop fluoridating Fairbanks’ water. The main reason cited was fluoridation was putting non-nursing infants at risk of fluorosis, although there were other concerns. Only the dentist dissented. At the May 2011 city council meeting, following the task force’s findings, the members voted 5-1 to stop it.
It’s enlightening to compare the thorough, transparent process the Fairbanks city council instituted with Portland’s. Here, fluoridation proponents met with the Portland Water Bureau for months behind closed doors and privately with city commissioners and their staffs before The Oregonian broke the story Aug. 9. Most of the public never realized the discussions were being held, including the mayors of outlying cities like Gresham, Tigard and Tualatin, who buy water from Portland. One public hearing was held Sept. 6. Mayor Sam Adams, Randy Leonard and Nick Fish all declared their support before the public hearing was even held. The final vote was taken Sept. 12.
I think our local politicians could learn a lot from Fairbanks.