Portland voters reject fluoridation for the fourth time

For the fourth time since 1956, Portlanders have rejected a plan to fluoridate the city's water. It's the only city among the nation's 30 most populous that avoids the practice — prompting critics to complain that the city is simply being anti-science.

Dr. Strangelove image via American Buddha.

The point of water fluoridation is to prevent tooth decay — one of the most prevalent chronic diseases in the world. It doesn't affect the appearance, taste, or smell of drinking water. Nor does it pose any kind of health risk.

But as Orac of the Respectful Insolence blog recently wrote, we can now "chalk one up for the forces of anti-science, quackery, and pseudoscience."

His awesome takedown of Portland's anti-fluoridation campaign starts like this:

What bothers me about this decision is not so much that it was made but how it was made. I didn’t call this vote a victory for antiscience and quackery just because Portland voted against fluoridation. I called it a victory for antiscience and quackery because classic antiscience arguments appear to have won. It would be one thing if the decision had been made dispassionately based on the evidence and it was decided that the potential benefits weren’t worth it. Kyle Hill provides a very good description of the science of why from a public health perspective the case against fluoridation doesn’t hold water. The issue, of course, is that people don’t decide things strictly based on the science and the evidence. They might think that they do, but they don’t. Not even skeptics do. I realize that some of the cranks out there might not believe that I understand that, but I do. For instance, even though the pro-fluoridation forces had the stronger argument on a number of fronts, be it the safety of low level fluoridation or how since 1945 the fluoridation of drinking water has reduced tooth decay by 40-70% in children and tooth loss in adults by 40-60%, those arguments didn’t resonate. Neither did pointing out that fluoridation achieves these benefits with very little downside. What did resonate were campaigns about the “evils” of fluoridation, virtually all of which are canards, tropes, and just plain not true.

He points to this poster:

Portland voters reject fluoridation for the fourth time

And this picture:

Portland voters reject fluoridation for the fourth time

And this TV ad with Ed Begley:

Orac responds:

I wondered how many times he’d repeat the word “chemical,” although I must give the producers of this commercial props for saying, “We don’t help kids by adding more chemicals to their water.” Hmmm. One wonders if Mr. Begley is as horrified by the addition of chlorine to his drinking water. It’s a very clever line that plays into people’s fears of “chemicals” and environmental contamination, the purest demagoguery. The ad finishes up with bold letters saying “Please vote no to fluoridation chemicals” and a link to cleanwaterportland.org. Chemicals? Fluoridation involves adding only one chemical. In any case, Clean Water Portland (CWP) is chock full of distortions used by antifluoridation cranks. There again is the old familiar “Fluoridation chemicals are unpurified industrial byproducts from fertilizer manufacturing, and are not the same as the fluoride in toothpaste.” In fact, reading the website, I’m hard pressed to find CWP referring to anything but “fluoridation chemicals” rather that fluoride or fluoridation. It’s repeated so often that it’s jarring to me and clearly meant to play on people’s fear of chemicals rather than on reason or evidence.

After going into considerable detail as to why fluoridation is far from toxic and why it's a good idea (and I encourage you to read the entire article), he concludes:

In any case, public policy is best driven by science and evidence, where the best science informs the political process. In the case of Portland, from where I stand, the question of whether water fluoridation was good public policy was not decided that way in Portland.

Image: Skylines/Shutterstock.