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Home arrow Opinion arrow Columns arrow Portland chews on remaining fluoride-free

Portland chews on remaining fluoride-free

By Jayson Jacoby

Baker City Herald Editor

So it looks as though Portland, the city which venerates the bicycle with near religious fervor, might decide whether dental health is as important as cardiovascular.

The dread specter of fluoride, humble defender of our collective enamel, has risen once again to haunt the City of Roses.


So it looks as though Portland, the city which venerates the bicycle with near religious fervor, might decide whether dental health is as important as cardiovascular.

The dread specter of fluoride, humble defender of our collective enamel, has risen once again to haunt the City of Roses.

A coalition of groups is brushing up on its pro-fluoridation pitch, and it has picked up an endorsement from City Commissioner Randy Leonard, who oversees Portland’s Water Bureau. Commissioner Nick Fish and Mayor Sam Adams have endorsed fluoride, too, which would give fluoridation all the votes it needs on the five-member City Council.

Opponents, meanwhile, vow to take the matter to voters if the Council enacts a fluoridation program.

The Oregon Legislature has kicked around mandatory-fluoridation bills a few times in the past, but the anti-fluoride lobby has found the state unusually fertile ground for the varied and specious claims about adding fluoride to drinking water.

My favorite is that an unholy alliance, apparently involving corporations, municipalities and public health agencies, cooked up the whole scam as a way to dispose of toxic waste.

(Although no explanation is proferred as to why this cabal didn’t just dig a new Love Canal.)

Portland voters have thrice rejected proposals to fluoridate their water. Although the most recent of those votes happened in 1980, which used to sound recent to me but which I now recognize, having done the rudimentary math, was in fact 32 years ago.

Cars still came from the factory with carburetors back then.

And Led Zeppelin was still a band.

Anyway Portland, well into the era of the smartphone, remains the most populous American city to, in effect, act as though decades of clinical research about the efficacy and safety of fluoridated water is equivalent to alchemy or medieval theories about the bodily humors.

This seems to me to be in the same nonsensical spirit as the argument that seat belts are lethal because, well, what if your car catches fire and you can’t unlatch the stupid thing?

But then maybe we shouldn’t trust the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which deemed water fluoridation one of the 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century.

Perhaps that esteemed agency truly is merely a facade to hide the machinations of the corporations.

(One such machination, we must then believe, is slowly poisoning the people who would otherwise buy their products.)

But assuming, for the sake of argument, that the CDC isn’t doing the devil’s work, consider these statistics:

Given the obstinacy of Oregon’s biggest city, which supplies water to about one-quarter of the state’s residents, it’s hardly surprising that just four states have a higher percentage of third-graders with untreated tooth decay, according to the CDC.

West Virginia, which is not the first state you’d think of if you were making one of those toothpaste commercials starring kids with smiles that could cause snow-blindness, absolutely embarrasses Oregon, with a 17.1-percent rate of toothachy third-graders to our 35.4 percent.

We did outshine Texas, New Mexico, Louisiana and Arizona.

Placing 46th out of 50 in a contest that involves eight-year-olds having their teeth yanked out doesn’t sound like a grand achievement, though.

Baker City doesn’t add fluoride to its water.

Which isn’t to say there isn’t any fluoride in there.

Fluoride occurs naturally in many rocks, and since Baker City’s water comes from streams and springs, which tend to flow over and between rocks, it picks up a little fluoride on its way to your taps.

Precisely how little, well that’s difficult to pin down.

The city isn’t required to test water samples for fluoride each year. The most recent test, from 2010, didn’t detect any fluoride, said Jake Jones, the city’s watershed manager.

But a water sample tested in 2008 measured a fluoride concentration of “less than” .87 parts per million (or milligrams per liter, mg/L, another common scale), according to the city’s annual Water Quality Report, which is mailed to all water customers and also is available on the city’s website, www.bakercity.com.

A CDC database shows the city’s fluoride concentration at .20 mg/L, although that web page was last updated on Feb. 6, 2008.

The federal government, meanwhile, recommends a fluoride concentration of .7 milligrams per liter for optimal protection from cavities.

Because the city gets water from a dozen streams and springs, it’s possible that samples for the 2008 tests came from sources with higher concentrations of fluoride than the sources that supplied the 2010 sample, which didn’t contain fluoride, said Jake Jones, the city’s watershed manager.

To complicate things to what seems to me a hopeless level, water from multiple sources gets mixed before it flows to town.

Because the city occasionally gets phone calls from residents asking about fluoride in the water, Jones said the city will henceforth test for fluoride at least once per year — ideally during July, when the city is tapping most of its sources to fulfill the higher demand during the heat of summer.

(The city, by the way, tests water for E. coli much more often — four times per week.)

The bottom line, then, is that there’s almost certainly some fluoride in our water, although probably not at a sufficient concentration to give our enamel the full measure of protection from the assaults of sodas, licorice whips and the like.

Still, I consider even a trifling amount of fluoride a sort of free bonus — rather like having somweone volunteer to clean my teeth every now and again because I’m too lazy to schedule an appointment.

Speaking of which, fluoridation foes argue that no city would need to add fluoride to its water if only its residents would brush and floss daily, and have a dentist poke around between their molars and canines a couple times a year.

This is true.

But the abysmal condition of Oregon third-graders’ teeth suggests that their oral hygiene isn’t as consistent as any thoughtful adult would hope.

Oh, but the critics say, this is still a matter of choice. That some parents neglect their kids’ bicuspids  is troubling, sure, but their failures don’t justify forcing me to drink fluoridated water.

In a theoretical sense, that argument sounds to me slightly compelling.

Except we live in an actual world, with actual teeth that get actual cavities that cause actual, and often agonizing, pain.

There’s nothing theoretical about an abscessed tooth, as anyone who’s ever had one can attest.

(As soon as the Novocaine wears off, anyway.)

I’m all for telling the government to mind its own business when such an admonition is well-deserved.

(Which, occasionally, it is. I don’t, to cite one local example, need the city to tell me how to stack firewood.)

But I’d rather not make as the centerpiece of my campaign the idea that we will not be a truly free society until, by God, every kid has equal access to undergoing multiple root canals before age 10.

Anyway, that slogan wouldn’t fit on a bumper sticker.

Although “fluoride sucks” would.

And in Portland, it probably soon will.

 
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