With Portland's Latest Rejection of Fluoride, Science Loses Out to History's Weirdest Alliance of Paranoiacs

How has one of America's biggest cities resisted the medical establishment on fluoridation?

Image
Shutterstock

The votes are in, and Portland, Oregon, has retained a dubious honor: it has the largest fluoride-free water system in the United States.

The most recent campaign to add fluoride to the city's water, which serves some 900,000 people, had been bitter and contentious. There were allegations of scientific misconduct, robocalls, and stolen yard signs. At first, it seemed that the forces of the medical establishment would finally have their way with this contrarian city.

But in the end, the tally was not particularly close: opponents of fluoridation prevailed with 60 percent of the vote. It's the fourth time that advocates -- this time around, they included five city commissioners, health advocates, and community organizations -- have failed to put fluoride into Portland's drinking water.

Nearly three-quarters of Americans drink fluoride-enriched water, which is universally acknowledged [PDF] to help fight tooth decay. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call the use of fluoride in water systems, which began in the 1940s, one of the 10 greatest public health achievements of the 20th century.

Oregon has one of the highest rates of tooth decay in the nation, and yet, the state's biggest city will remain an outlier, thanks to the remarkable efforts of the anti-fluoride lobby, a non-partisan alliance of paranoiacs. "It’s as if an Occupy protest, a talk on artisanal cheesemaking, and a Tea Party rally were all accidentally booked at the same hotel ballroom," Marty Smith wrote in the Willamette Week. Relying on a handful of inapplicable research studies and the testimony of dubious experts, the anti-fluoridians have managed to keep scientific reality at bay. (For more on the scientific controversy, read Jake Blumgart's piece at Slate.)

Naturally, "putting things in the water" is an early sign of government-sponsored mind control, and the resurgence of anti-government sentiment in this country has given the movement a boost. Two years ago, Pinellas County, Florida, removed the fluoride from its water system after a Tea Party-led campaign, making it the second-largest jurisdiction after Portland to do so. And the impeccably organized Fluoride for Action network directs its supporters not just to the cities where fluoride is at the ballot box, but also to the comment boards: Blumgart's piece has over 2,000 comments; Adrian Chen's piece in Gawker has several hundred.

But their tactics are working: since 2010, 125 communities have removed fluoride from their water systems. Those include fairly sizable cities like Wichita, Kansas; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Windsor, Ontario. Calgary, which removed fluoride from its water in 2011, is the movement's biggest conquest yet.

Guess what happened there? A historic rise in cavities.

Top image: Shutterstock.com/Yuri Samsonov

About the Author

  • Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.