Portland Voters Keep Fluoride Out Of Drinking Water

May 22, 2013

Voters in Portland, Oregon have decide not to add fluoride to their municipal drinking water. Seattle and most other large cities in the US added the chemical decades ago to prevent cavities in children.

April Baer of Oregon Public Broadcasting covered the vote and spoke with KUOW about what the winners had to say.

The messaging (on the "no" side) was pretty similar to what they had used during most of the campaign—namely, that Portlanders had done their own research and would not rely on the public health mainstream. Much of their campaign was aimed at telling the public that there was not enough evidence to support fluoride’s benefits, and that, in their view, more exploration is really needed into fluoride’s risks. The broader dental, medical and scientific communities all supported fluoridation and disputed the “no” campaign’s ideas on this one.

It’s really tough to talk about this issue without discussing how incensed people were at the process that got this vote on the ballot. Last year, Portland City Council voted to put the measure on the ballot and many voters said they felt that it was rushed. As this one former council member put it, “nothing gets Portlanders riled up like a sense of an injustice.”

Portland’s political culture is really deeply tied up with concepts of social justice and the environment. So, in a lot of ways the campaign was sort of a perfect storm, with every public health entity in town lined up for fluoride, and then on the other side, the Sierra Club and others in the opposition campaign. It might have posed a conundrum for voters who saw the choice framed as supporting kids’ teeth versus supporting the environment.

The measure (“yes” on fluoride) campaign was trying to imply last night that their side had to rely on science, whereas, as they put it, the other side could say whatever they wanted. That said, the “yes” campaign also raised over $800,000 to get their message across, compared with the “no” campaign’s $373,000. And the “yes” campaign still lost.

It’s pretty difficult to imagine fluoride getting much further, at least in the immediate future. So many people on both sides of the issue last night were saying that they were just really relieved it was over, that they had lost friends or lost Facebook friends over this, and that they were looking forward to putting it behind them. Both sides were talking about working in future ways either together or alone to further dental health in different ways, but it remains to be seen whether they’ll do that.

As somebody put it on Facebook last night, the bets are on about when the first fluoridated cocktails will be hitting the menu at Portland bars.