What’s worse in water? Fluoride or sewage?

By Jayson Jacoby May 31, 2013 09:06 am

I watched with no small measure of amusement this spring as Portland whipped itself into a frenzy over fluoride.

The frothy mixture of hyperbole, conspiracy theorizing and contempt for the scientific establishment, topped with the peculiar irascibility of Portlanders, was for me as irresistible as a root beer float.

I wasn’t surprised that voters in Oregon’s largest city rejected a proposal to add fluoride to their water supply.

They had done so three times before, for one thing, dating back to the Eisenhower administration.

I don’t often go to Portland, and neither do my teeth, so I had no real stake in the outcome.

And yet I’m intrigued about Portland’s disdain for fluoridation, largely because I’m not sure what motivation is the most influential.

My inclination was to attribute this latest anti-fluoride vote to the city’s pride in being different — or, rather, “weird,” as the bumper sticker puts it.

Portland, as most media reports and pundits from outside the state noted, remains the largest American city that does not add fluoride to its water.

Yet based on some of the published comments from Portlanders who oppose fluoridation, it seems to me that the more likely explanation is not their desire to swim outside the mainstream, but rather their sheer arrogance.

So what if the Centers for Disease Control hails fluoridation as one of the 10 best public health achievements of the 20th century.

What do those quacks know anyway, with their medical degrees and peer-reviewed papers and white lab coats?

Portlanders, alone among residents of American metropolitan areas, have divined the nasty truth about Big Fluoride and its sinister scheme to make a profit off its toxic waste under the guise of strengthening the nation’s enamel.

They Googled it and everything.

And the Europeans don’t like fluoride, either.

Fluoride proponents, not surprisingly, were disgusted by such blatant disregard for science; and some contend that the campaign misled voters and, in effect, polluted the political process.

I don’t believe this is the case.

Although I agree with the CDC about the efficacy and safety of fluoridation, I have no problem with how Portlanders went about expressing their opinion on the matter.

To put it another way, I don’t think fluoridation, innocuous and beneficial though it indisputably is, ought to trump the democratic process. If a majority of Portland voters don’t want fluoride added to their water, then so be it.

Among the anti-fluoride group’s arguments, the one I find most compelling is that fluoride is readily available without the government’s help.

You could lay in a year’s supply of toothpaste for about 10 bucks if you shop at a dollar store.

Put simply, anybody who wants fluoride can get it, but those who don’t want it shouldn’t have it forced on them.

There’s an elegance to this notion that appeals to my libertarian sympathies.

(Although I don’t remember this ploy ever working for me in grade school, when we had to swish a fluoride solution in our mouths and then spit it back into a tiny paper cup. Why they couldn’t buy those tablets I have no idea.)

Still and all, Portland anti-fluoride zealots, as is typical with zealots of all sorts, are vulnerable to charges of, if not precisely hypocrisy, then at best inconsistency.

A common complaint during the campaign was that fluoridated water, as water is wont to do, would end up downriver, where it would pose a threat to salmon and other aquatic species that have quite enough to worry about already what with the dams and the sea lions and the caspian terns.

But here’s the thing: For decades Portland’s sewer system dumped millions of gallons of raw sewage into the Willamette River pretty much whenever it rained hard.

Considering Portland’s climate, this hardly qualifies as a minor engineering oversight.

Yet the citizenry didn’t muster anything like the level of outrage that attended the fluoride campaign, even though the sewage overflows were a chronic problem.

And unlike with fluoride, there’s no debate about whether dumping raw sewage into a river ranks as a pretty serious pollution problem.

Raw sewage doesn’t prevent cavities, either (and even if it did, you can’t buy it at the dollar store).

Nor can it fairly be described as “minty fresh.”

Jayson Jacoby is editor 
of the Baker City Herald.