Why Won't Portland Fluoridate?

Portland, Oregon votes tomorrow on whether or not to fluoridate its water supply. I’m fascinated by the ways people adopt non-mainstream beliefs, so I jumped right into the anti-fluoridation activism vortex and found a culture motivated by fear and a desire for purity. I started with the Fluoride Action Network (FAN). My first thought: these people have money. The site is nicely designed and full of videos so the information is accessible to all. FAN focuses on the idea of “mass medication,” arguing that adding fluoride to the public water supply constitutes forcing drugs on unwilling people. According to FAN, people with kidney disease are at particular risk for fluoride toxicity.   They say, “it is unethical to compromise the health of some members in a population to obtain a purported benefit for another—particularly in the absence of these vulnerable members’ knowing consent.” FAN interprets fluoridation as an attack on personal liberty, a medical harm, and an informed consent issue. They allude to a government conspiracy to medicate and dull the intelligence of the public through fluoride.

Then I found Clean Water Portland, a group dedicated to keeping fluoride out of the city’s water supply. The first reason Clean Water Portland gives for voting no tomorrow is that “Industrial byproducts don’t belong in our water.” The chemical in question is fluorosilicic acid (FSA), a waste product from fertilizer manufacturing. Associating water and fertilizer is a great way to increase skepticism. Just the phrase “industrial byproducts” seems sinister and contaminated.

Clean Water Portland also invokes parents’ anxiety about harming their children by citing the conclusions of a Harvard meta-analysis of Chinese studies on the relationship between fluoride and IQ. The studies found an approximately 7 point drop in IQ when children lived in communities with fluoridated water. The researchers in the Harvard study note that this is a preliminary analysis and that there may be other issues contributing to the IQ drop.

Clean Water Portland frames the link between fluoridated water and IQ by asserting that “in a large population such as Portland, a shift of 5 IQ points would cut the number of geniuses in half and double the number of mentally handicapped.” Whoa! A vote for fluoridation is a vote for robbing your child of genius status. How could you? This shows Clean Water Portland’s inclination toward using parents’ natural desire to protect their children as a means to maintain the “purity” of Portland’s water.

Finally, I arrived at the Facebook page of Fluoride Free Portland. It has 415 likes, and appears to be a somewhat active community of Portlanders sharing links and encouraging people to promote the anti-fluoridation message. “Clean” and “natural” are their most important buzzwords. The posts show the true fear and disgust some Portlanders have for fluoride. The page is littered with photos of FSA tanks labeled “corrosive” and “caution.” Political cartoons, quotations placed over images of pristine lakes, and photos of kids holding anti-fluoride signs adorn the page. Supporters call for their perspective to be included on the Portland Water Board website but get their information about the dangers of fluoride from unreliable sources.

Like other fringe health activist groups—I’m looking at you, anti-vaxxers—the anti-fluoride coalition exists in a world where there is a pure, clean version of life that is endangered by deceptive medicine and industry. While I believe we must have a healthy amount of skepticism, particularly regarding the motivations of corporations, the anti-fluoride groups seem to have abandoned reason. They subvert their own cause by their radical opposition. I think there are plenty of people who would be willing to have a conversation about informed consent and the potential health effects fluoride can have on vulnerable populations. The alarmism and guilt used by these groups makes the rest of us tune out their potentially valuable contributions to the conversation.

Whether Portland starts fluoridating its water is up to the voters. But we should keep an eye on the anti-fluoride movement. Anti-vaccine groups were not taken seriously at first, and now we have outbreaks of pertussis and measles. With the easy communication afforded by the Internet, anti-fluoride could become the next big health movement, and our teeth will suffer.