Debate over fluoridation rages on: What reporters need to know

Mary Otto

About Mary Otto

Mary Otto, a Washington, D.C.-based freelancer, is AHCJ's topic leader on oral health, curating related material at healthjournalism.org. She welcomes questions and suggestions on oral health resources at mary@healthjournalism.org.

Fluoride opposition sign in Portland, Ore.

Photo by Neal Jennings.

“Portland and its aversion to fluoride reflects Oregon’s unusual politics”

That was the headline that ran over Oregonian writer Jeff Mapes’ May 22 election story.

“In 2011, the board of the Santa Clara Valley [Calif.] Water District voted to begin fluoridating water for about 850,000 customers in and around San Jose. Anti-fluoride activists grumbled but realized they didn’t have the resources to take their fight to the public.

“That’s sure not what happened in Portland, which once again showed that this far northwest corner of the country is willing to go where other parts of the country rarely tread.

“Activists packed the City Council chambers to protest the decision to go ahead with fluoridation and then collected more than 40,000 signatures in a month to place the issue on the ballot. And then, putting together a campaign organization on the fly, they won in a walk – despite being outspent three to one.

“Whether we’re talking about how to fight tooth decay or insisting that someone else pump our gas, Oregonians’ fierce independence and easy access to a Wild West system of direct democracy creates a different civic culture here.”

In the midst of just one of the fluoride debates brewing around the country last fall, Portland’s city council voted 5-0 to approve the fluoridation of the city’s water supply.

Public health advocates cheered. But fluoride opponents swore they would fight on. And they prevailed big time.

Mapes noted that the anti-fluoride campaign may have been helped by “the intense and complicated relationship that Oregonians have to their surrounding landscape.”

“Portland’s water is its own famous brand, coming from the pristine Bull Run watershed and marketed as one of the purest and least-treated municipal water supplies in the country.

“There is this connection we feel with our own natural resources,” former City Commissioner Mike Lindberg, who campaigned against fluoridation said. “We just love our pure water.”

Scientific American Blogger Kyle Hill was not so easy on Portland. In “Why Portland is Wrong About Water Fluoridation” he offered voters a thorough dressing down.

“It’s the fourth time Portland has rejected the public health measure since 1956. It’s the fourth time they’ve gotten the science wrong.”

“When new medical treatments are implemented, when new drugs are introduced into the populace, there is always some hesitation. There are (hopefully) some clinical trials to back up the new intervention, but the long-term implications are often unclear. Water fluoridation doesn’t have this problem. For over 65 years, it has been rigorously tested as a public health measure, and considered one of the most successful measures of the last 100 years, alongside others like recognizing that tobacco use is a health hazard.”

To that end, I have put together a tip sheet that I hope might be helpful if a fluoride debate comes to a town near you.

One thought on “Debate over fluoridation rages on: What reporters need to know

  1. Beth Stewart

    As the chairperson of a nonprofit oral health coalition, I am very interested in your tip sheet on fluoridation. Is there any way I may obtain a copy if I am not a journalist or a member of AHCJ? Really appreciate all your articles on Oral Health by the way. You do a terrific job.

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